Complete Podcast Interview Transcript:
Michael dennin, PHD, university of california, irvine
Professor, Physics & Astronomy; Dean, Division of Undergraduate Education; Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning
Welcome to the Purpose Nation Podcast. Inspiring conversations with Christians in science, technology and industries of the future. For more information or to make a tax-deductible contribution, visit PurposeNation.org.
Brad Cooper: 00:16
This is Brad Cooper with Purpose Nation. And today we have a very cool show for you speaking with physicist, superhero expert and one of the stars of the TV show Ancient Aliens, Professor Michael Dennin. Professor Dennin, welcome to the Purpose Nation podcast.
Michael Dennin: 00:32
Oh thank you for having me. It's great to be here!
Brad Cooper: 00:35
Likewise. Very excited to talk to Professor Dennin and geek out a little bit on some of these things that he's been involved with. It's not often you know that you combine these things together. Physics, superheroes, aliens all kinds of great stuff. So really looking forward to talking to Professor Denton today. He's able to look at physics and science in some interesting ways that I guess maybe even the average teenager or the average college student might actually care about and listen to who's very excited. You know it's not really going to be the heavy duty kind of, although we might get into some heavy duty physics as well but it's more interesting and talking about some interesting things. So looking forward to talking about aliens, superheroes, and other cool stuff like that. But before we do I wanted to give a quick background and biography of Professor Dennin. He's got a few titles here. So bear with me. He's the Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning. Also the Dean of Undergraduate Education and a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California at Irvine. Think I got all those. I got got them all out and got him right hopefully. And Professor Dennin has been at UCI for more than 20 years in teaching and doing research. Some really interesting and important areas of physics that he's been involved with such as complex systems, condensed matter and condensed fluids, complex dynamics of biological systems. I've seen a theme of complexity. You seem to like complex things.
Michael Dennin: 00:35
Very much so.
Brad Cooper: 00:35
Brad Cooper: 01:52
Professor Dennin also earn his AB in physics from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from University of California Santa Barbara. He is an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar and has won many other awards with published scientific papers quoted in the popular press many times. So a very well known in physics circles. But then also in popular media as well because he's been able to popularize science for the public including teaching a course called The Science of Superheroes. He's also appeared on some television programs that people may have seen him on or recognized him from Spiderman Tech, Batman Tech, Star Wars Tech, and Ancient Aliens. And Professor Dennin also wrote a great book on the intersection between science and faith called Divine Science Finding Reason at the Heart of Faith. And he has his own pretty unique take on this topic and so I recommend that our listeners get a copy. Check it out. We'll have a link to the book from our podcast page so that you can go check it out. Definitely recommend it. Looking forward to hearing about all of this. But just starting off Professor Dennin let's start with the first of your many titles that you currently have there so Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning. So what does a Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning do?
Michael Dennin: 03:02
So it's interesting the cool thing I get to do is define what that is because it's a new position at UC Irvine. It's two years old now. Basically it's a recognition you know UCI is known for being a major research university but we're also a public university and our goal is to serve the citizens of California. Teaching is not only important at UCI but it's also become more complex. Technology has added to it, changing demographics. We're in a situation we just actually became what's called Hispanic serving. So 25 percent of our students are Hispanic. Over half of our students are the first in their family to go to college. We have 40 percent of our students are low income and so there's a great kind of diversity of backgrounds which is you know higher ed has always had that goal. But I think for a long time in history universities have been definitely a little more for the elite. And when you put all that together teaching becomes a complex endeavor and my job is to set up the structures and support for faculty so that we can all teach better. And then as part of that I also oversee the division of undergraduate education that's the dream piece that's a little easier that everything academic a student does that's not their major. So I get to oversee the undergraduate research, the honors program, the writing center, the learning academic resource centers to support students success initiatives, transfer center, international student excellence programs, and a whole bunch of others. Anyone from my team is listening and I miss them they'll be mad at me.
Brad Cooper: 04:21
But well there's a cover there so I can imagine you would forget one.
Michael Dennin: 04:25
And I also oversee summer session because that's kind of an interesting time. It's an opportunity for students to catch up but also for faculty to experiment with new teaching styles and teaching techniques. Kind of put it all together and that's what we do and the whole goal is to really serve the students better when it comes to their education.
Brad Cooper: 04:41
Well that's great. And UCI has just been a leader for him for many years. I'm going to be a little bit biased because we're here in in Irvine as well. But you just look at it over the years in terms of the status, prestige and great faculty the been able to attract and students and just the different programs. I think I saw $200 million for a new medical school?
Michael Dennin: 05:00
Yes, actually it was just down recently and it's very exciting. So we have a college of Health Sciences which brings together the medical school nursing, pharmaceutical sciences and public health. And it was a very, very generous gift. We're very excited about that.
Brad Cooper: 05:15
That's great! Now on top of all this must have a little bit less time for teaching physics and some of the physics research. But are you still doing some of that?
Michael Dennin: 05:22
In the last couple of years has been definitely more of the administration. I snuck in the occasional course. My science of superheroes course has both in class but also an online version. So I was able to do that last year for high school students. And last spring I was able to sneak in teaching the physics majors one of the sophomore level courses.
Brad Cooper: 05:42
And so research too. I mean you had some pretty and I want to hear more about like some of the research that you've done in the past even if it's not something active but I don't know if that's something you're still reacting with.
Michael Dennin: 05:52
We're eeking the research along and thanks in large part to have an excellent postdoctoral researcher who acts as my lab manager and we had about eight undergraduates work in the lab this summer. A lot of what I do is very accessible to undergraduate and that kind of helps in this situation. Keep it kind of moving along.
Brad Cooper: 06:06
Now let's take a step back here. So I like to hear how we got to this point a little bit in the childhood. You can't sort of be where you're at now and all these different interesting things without having some interest in science. I'm guessing, what sort of drove your initial If you can remember back interest in science?
Michael Dennin: 06:20
Yeah I mean I think for me a lot of it was kind of that classic science fiction and fantasy. I mean I just read like crazy and I read everything from sort of classic Isaac Asimov and Heinlein, Tolkien to you know whatever was coming out new at the time when I was growing up. And then of course you know things like Star Wars came out and I think from a pretty early age my goal was to go into space. I was definitely one of people who would love to do space travel. Now along the way it was interesting and I particularly in college I realized I actually enjoyed doing science more than actually going down the traditional route of becoming an astronaut. I had all the traditional geeky kid interest in dinosaurs. I even tried to build my own laser once. Not knowing anything about it it never would have even come close to working. But I tried but I will tell you since our ultimate goal is kind of faith in science is kind of I think is a story that defines me really well, I can still remember would've been about third grade in my mind having this revelation. It must have been either like it Sunday-School or somehow we were doing the Seven Day of Creation story of Genesis and it just hit me that wow that was the same thing I learned about evolution the way everything came in order and started in the ocean and then the land and just the whole process. It blew me away. And so even early on that kind of the two parts of my life were together in weird ways.
Brad Cooper: 07:43
And did you pretty early on also say this is what I want to be when I grow up?
Michael Dennin: 07:48
Well you know my dad's a math professor. My mom's a high school math teacher. And so I don't know that I explicitly, I mean I went through all the tender ages of a young kid wanting to be like a fireman, a professional soccer player, or a professional golfer. I sort of knew what a professor was because my dad was one. So I think in college when I started thinking seriously about this I really liked the lifestyle of always being able to spend my time having someone pay me to learn. It was a really cool idea. You know as those ideas solidified the thought of being a professor was very high up there.
Brad Cooper: 08:21
And so professor and combine that with the interest in science. Yes. And then when did you make the decision that you wanted to major in physics. Was that an undergrad?
Michael Dennin: 08:29
I actually made that undergrad because I was deciding between history math and physics and I noticed history. You write too much. I said this in history. You could take the classes in any order which sounds a little odd given that it's history but in college you can there's no real pre-req whereas physics and math is very structured. In Princeton you didn't actually declare the major until your end of your sophomore year. But if you're going to be any hope of being a math or physics major You had to start right at the beginning and then it was somewhere in about my sophomore year where I realized I really like using math. I didn't like doing math. That was when I discovered math was proof. And I also discovered I wasn't particularly good at proofs but the physics I was still very good at. So it was really a process of elimination. You know we divide physics loosely into theorists and experimentalists and I thought for sure I would do theory because I never was very good at undergraduate labs. They didn't work for me but it was actually in grad school that I discovered experiment and had a summer job in a lab and totally fell in love with it and switched into the area that I ended up you know building my career on.
Brad Cooper: 08:29
Michael Dennin: 08:29
It was a process.
Brad Cooper: 09:27
OK. And it's interesting that's kind of a common theme we hear where there's a math background as well as sometimes having parents who are teachers. Now how about your faith background? Tell us a little bit more about that.
Michael Dennin: 09:37
Yeah it's interesting. I'm born and raised Catholic but my mom is Jewish so I'm technically Jewish by Jewish law. I went to a Jesuit high school. I went to public school for grade school and junior high but I did go to a Jesuit high school partly because my dad taught at Fairfield University Jesuit university and I got reduced tuition and the local high school seemed to be threatening to eliminate soccer through budget cuts and I want to make sure I played soccer. I'm sure my parents had more rational reasons for me to go to the Jesuit high school. That was my justification.
Brad Cooper: 10:10
Soccer was your reason. Got it!
Michael Dennin: 10:12
The Jesuit priest and the theology classes really had an impact on me there. Up to that point. Like I said I had my moment where I realized Genesis and evolution match the standard. What was then called CCD, you know religious education. It was an inch slightly interesting growing up because with my mom being Jewish, I think I always had a slightly more than some kids liberal isn't quite the right word. There were always some things I didn't take quite at face value like, oh you had to be Catholic to go to heaven. Well because clearly my mom was going to go to heaven.
Brad Cooper: 10:42
You know I was a little kid you can't imagine that not happening. And so I was always a little thoughtful about it in ways that maybe other kids weren't too maybe that got me ready for when I ended up in high school and was influenced by the Jesuits to be ready to think about my faith. And I think that really led me down the path of kind of thinking back and forth between faith in science and how they were related.
Brad Cooper: 11:04
OK, so you made that connection between faith in science. Were there any challenges to your faith either in high school or college exposure to other people maybe not of the same faith? Any challenges to your faith growing up?
Michael Dennin: 11:14
You know it's an interesting thing and I've noticed this we're all very different and I've discovered I'm just really ornery. So like for instance one of the reasons I ended up at Princeton was my guidance counselor told me no one from my school ever made into a prince and said don't apply. So I applied and my dad did say you know as I was leaving it never occurred to me that never mind atheists but that Catholics were considered slightly extreme and weird by Protestant. It wasn't just something it wasn't in my realm of thought. And he warned me that going to school I might find people not liking me for being Catholic both atheist and other certain Protestant denominations so he said Just be ready for that right. And so you know certainly in both college and grad school particularly at a place like Princeton there were plenty of people who challenge but usually in a friendly or interesting way. One thing I think that really helped me that made a huge difference. My freshman year we actually I actually lived in a suite of 12 guys like six of whom were Jewish and practiced at various levels one of whom was an Orthodox Jewish. And then there was two Catholics and a couple of Protestants and I think it was really watching my roommates who were Jewish be open about the practices of their faith made me realize that I need to do that as well. And so when I was challenged instead of really causing me to doubt it caused me to articulate it better which I feel very blessed to have had that experience. I know it's not always that standard college experience to have that people often question and fall away and for me I think it also was just a chance to learn to articulate it in new ways. I even wrote an article for The Prince and paper. I was asked. I looked back on it and I think I was highly naive that I made a few good points the question was why would a loving God allow evil to occur and one guy wrote you know how the existence of evil proved God didn't exist. And I was supposed to prove God did exist. And we write these competing articles. So I was even went as public as that.
Brad Cooper: 13:10
Wow! Yeah. So early on already getting into the mix there.
Michael Dennin: 13:14
Brad Cooper: 13:14
And again not necessarily concern about what it might do to career because frankly I mean that's something that I think people in science and also technology too. To come out there with your faith like that. You know when you don't have tenure yet in a college or you know you're in a high tech company and you're trying to become you know move up the ladder as an executive. Things like that, you know even if it's not real reality you have concerns about it. So that's kind of both.
Michael Dennin: 13:36
Well I will say I mean I don't want to. So it was interesting college. You know it's just my peers that was easy to do. Sure. On grad school again just my peers. It was fascinating to me. I would never deny it. And people ask me I was you know definitely explained my faith. I am in a weird physics department. There's a lot of practicing Christians. I don't know.
Brad Cooper: 13:55
We've had two of them on our show already. Right exactly.
Michael Dennin: 13:59
I mean for a while the guy next door to me was the bishop of the Mormon Church here in Irvine. So you know but I definitely did not write my book until after I had tenure.
Brad Cooper: 13:59
Michael Dennin: 14:12
When I wrote it, I wasn't sure what the reaction would be. And I'm very happy to report that even my atheist colleagues have been very supportive. You know they're intrigued, they're interested. I think because the coin of the realm in academics is your research you know establishing that reputation and stature they then can take you seriously.
Brad Cooper: 14:28
Right. Well and yes I'm going to that. Now if we can kind of fast forward for a little bit to your work and your research to talk to us a little bit about some of the research questions and again I understand you're kind of more on the administrative side but over the years what are some of the areas of physics that you've been involved with and some of the research that you've done?
Michael Dennin: 14:43
Well there's two that are particularly interesting because I think they're very relevant in this day and age to helping with the discussion around faith in science. And there's still new enough that I don't think, even many scientists don't really have them internalized. So one thing I studied for a large part of my career on something called pattern formation and very simply it is what it's called it's the formation of patterns in physical systems and the most common way to do this is to heat a fluid from below. If I take oil or water and I heat it uniformly at a critical temperature the hot water rises, it cools off and then it falls or rises and falls and this makes circular, what we call convection rolls, what I often tell people to imagine is it's like doughnuts, sideways in the water. And when you look at them from above, these role structures form patterns they form stripes, hexagons and squares and there's lots of interesting questions about how those patterns form, how they interact, what are the exact parameters you need to make them and the really interesting to me underlying physics phenomena that then has other implications is if you were to ask a person what's the chance of getting nice coherent little rolls in liquid from the random motion of the molecules. The answer is obviously zero. Right the molecules the odds of all the molecules doing the right thing to do this is zero. But when you hit the system from below you're putting energy in and now it's not the right scale. The molecules are really the right question to ask because now with probability 1, you do get the convection rolls and the molecules are still just doing their random motion but they're acting in a collective way. And it's the density of the collection you can't understand it's really from the molecules you have to understand it from looking at what we would call a larger length scale. And the reason that's important is there's so much out there in physics and biology that tends to get pulled into the science and faith debate that often people start trying to quote the probability of something happening randomly saying well that will never happen randomly because then X Y and Z and these arguments are often used both either to prove God exists or God does not exist. And the problem is they start from slightly faulty physics. The system they're looking at needs to be thought of in this higher level complex way and that's just not a well known physics idea out there. It doesn't enter the conversation which is one of the reasons I kind of wanted to write my book. I saw scientists using the wrong science in the discussion and it just kind of was hard to...
Brad Cooper: 17:01
So it sounds like you're saying biological systems and what are some of that and I'm guessing quantum mechanics right? what are some of the areas that this touches on in terms of you know what implications it could have?
Michael Dennin: 17:11
The biggest one is evolution. Evolution is usually in the faith science debate. People tend to focus on oh the simple definition of evolution of being just random chance and processes and so people would say random chance could never lead to these complex structures. And in my mind God created a much more interesting and rich world and there's laws of physics that make it probability one we would get us. And it's amazing to me that God designed a universe that does this. And I think I can't point to the detailed physics that do it because the complicated enough system. We don't know we barely understand water. There's a place where this doesn't kind of work which is when you start talking about free will. Scientists often call these things emergent properties. And I think they sometimes use it too broadly where it doesn't work.
Brad Cooper: 18:00
Well, yeah I mean there's so discussions about consciousness too and where that comes from and you know the brain functions of the brain be you know reduced to material things and if you roll it all up you get consciousness. And so the other complex system I'm guessing that this may have some applications to?
Michael Dennin: 18:18
Exactly the brain is one. And just interestingly enough it also has implications for whether or not you think there are aliens elsewhere in the universe and whether or not you think they've ever visited. And I think if you think about it right you come to the conclusion that there probably are aliens elsewhere in the universe but they've never visited.
Brad Cooper: 18:32
Well and that leads us right to do what I would love to talk about. So ancient aliens, I mean I have to say I guess I get it. It's not really my cup of tea. I'm just sort of a skeptic but in this case I guess I'm more of a skeptic of the skeptics. So it's obviously appealing and a lot of people love it. So maybe describe the show for those who haven't seen it.
Michael Dennin: 18:55
Right. So first of all what is the producers refer to me as a friendly skeptic because I'm the last remaining scientist I think on the show. It's been a fascinating thing because I meet a lot of people who recognize me and almost all the people I meet watched the show for entertainment. And if you talk to the producers you know their job is to make money and make a show that will be entertaining. And I think the few real critics of it miss the show is about people who have these theories and it's not about the theory. And yes some of these are incredibly strange and outlandish and out there and there's even times you know I'll get, we'll be doing the interview and they'll ask me a question and I have to be honest I don't really know what the question means. The producers are looking at me and say ok, we'll have to skip because we don't know what it means either.
Brad Cooper: 19:39
Well just for people haven't seen it. So the theme of the scene and they stretch this out over how many seasons now like 12?
Michael Dennin: 19:45
I don't know they have like seven or eight season. The basic theme is based on the idea that the aliens visit in the past and these are helped humans, created humans or made our pyramids for us or did something in the past it helps us. Right. They are actually called Ancient Alien Theorists.
Brad Cooper: 20:02
OK. How did this come about. I mean how did you get involved with the show?
Michael Dennin: 20:05
So it's actually pretty straightforward because I got involved with Prometheans Productions through the science of Superman, Spider-Man Tech, Star Wars Tech and Bathman Tech. And these shows are very science heavy. They're actually if you're into the interface between science and art I think you people would enjoy these shows because it really looks at what are the artistic decisions made. How many times do they know they're violating science. But why and where did they purposely not violate science and why and as humans what do we expect to be correct and not correct in the shows we watch because there are some things if you don't get it right are really disturbing and that you don't like to watch the show.
Brad Cooper: 20:45
I'm sure, like there's no sound in space. I think people get over certain you know commonly use problems and they say...yeah...
Michael Dennin: 20:50
So one of the interesting thing if you look at most spaceship flight. So when I was doing Star Wars Tech most spaceships fly like they're in an atmosphere even when they're not right. Because that's what you're used to.
Brad Cooper: 20:59
Right. Yeah. It would be disturbing and not see it fly that way. Yeah. So they brought you in a sort of yeah the critic and sort of but not maybe such a strong critic that takes away the fun of the show?
Michael Dennin: 21:10
Right. So they saw me on those they knew I could talk about science in a very general way. So when they did they only expected ancient aliens to be one two hour special and there was actually not just myself but they really brought me in to talk about you know the Ancient Alien Theorists say well here's a large rock. No human could move it. They have the technology so there must have been aliens and for me to talk about the physics of how people could have moved such a large rock. So the first show was very much putting a particular aside for the later episodes isn't very fine with. I tend to just answer general science questions that are what I would call more neutral than anything else but just to still have some science in the show. And I do it because people thank me for it, fundamentally. When I do get recognized which happens much to the embarrassment of my family it's usually to be thanked for having a little bit of science for the show and the people you know they just think the show was fun and it is interesting. The only people who complain, there's been two or three people, who identified themselves to me as a serious skeptics who can't believe I would be in the show as if my presence is powerful enough to make all the ideas and validate all show.
Brad Cooper: 22:13
Yeah. I mean the reason is part entertainment but there's definitely got people out there who really for some of these things believe it.
Michael Dennin: 22:18
There are people who I think are serious believers. Again, I view my role as how many physicists get to be talking science in a venue that reaches a million people.
Brad Cooper: 22:27
Right. And so the other shows that you talked about Batman and Superman and science of all these and Star Wars, out of those shows you know there's definitely things I'm guessing did they do in Iron Man one? I would imagine that would be the one that's the most closest to actual reality in terms of the gadgets and things.
Michael Dennin: 22:41 You know they never really did it. It turns out ironically and I hadn't really thought about until I did these shows. The Iron Man and Batman tend to be just you know straight technology. They themselves have no super powers. And Batman tends of less strange technology than Iron Man. So he actually does pretty well. Spider-Man does surprisingly well for someone who also has quote superpowers. His powers tend to be in the realm of more extreme than they would actually be. But not like a mild version of them isn't completely inconceivable.
Brad Cooper: 23:12
How about for you? So DC or Marvel?
Michael Dennin: 23:15
I have to admit I tend to be more Marvel. With the latest Wonder Woman movie, I really like.
Brad Cooper: 23:22
Okay. And then within Marvel Who's your favorite?
Michael Dennin: 23:25
I still love and I grew up with Spider-Man. He's my favorite.
Brad Cooper: 23:28
OK. And Star Wars or Star Trek?
Michael Dennin: 23:30
I slightly favor Star Wars but I'm one of those people who would probably get killed somewhere because I like both of them a lot. And I definitely fall into the side that Star Wars is much more fantasy not science fiction because of the nature of the themes of the story even though it has technology and Star Trek is much more science fiction. And I grew up reading both equally as a kid and I know there are people who tend to favor one over the other.
Brad Cooper: 23:56
And then what about Battlestar Galactica?
Michael Dennin: 24:00
I love that as a TV show the first time around. And then I just never I feel bad I think I would have really enjoyed the reboot but I just never had time to watch it.
Brad Cooper: 24:09
Right. Well the only reason I ask because it sort of leads me back to what you were saying about aliens. I don't know and I'm not sure where it comes from. It sound like you said well, I think that they might be out there. I mean what sort of your basis for that?
Michael Dennin: 24:21
Well you know when you look at it as I said earlier when it's my heating water or oil analogy we know there's a range of not we call it non-equilibrium. It's when you put energy into something. We know there's a range of non-equilibrium conditions where with probability 1, I get my convection rolls. So doing the experiment about life. I know there's a range of parameters, ours, where with probability 1, I get life. Now we don't know because we've only done the one experiment, Earth. We don't know how wide that range of parameters is but we are constantly finding more and more planets and more and more and one in a habitable zone more like Earth. And we're only scratching the surface because our tools has just recently got good enough to do that. So I fully expect that there's life out there. Now people say well why don't you think get visited? The other thing we know about these non-equilibrium systems is there's an inherent time scales for stuff to happen. So if there is life out there it's unlikely that it would be that much more advanced than us that given the distances it would have already been able to make it here to visit us.
Brad Cooper: 25:21
You took a little bit of the opposite view that I thought you would go down. So you're saying that there hasn't been enough time?
Michael Dennin: 25:21
Brad Cooper: 25:27
Whereas a lot of people would say and this is you know Stephen Hawking threw this out there too. If they do come you know what they've already been around for a billion years. So they're going to be a little more advanced than us.
Michael Dennin: 25:38
Yeah I mean so the way I see it is the we know what it takes kind of in the evolution of the universe to get roughly the conditions we have around our sun. So everybody is sort of starting off within a few thousand ten thousand a hundred thousand years of each other. Now what's unclear is who's ahead right and the people who are ahead are the ones who are going to visit first. I couldn't tell you what my prediction would be whether we're going to figure out space travel first and discover life by going out there or we're they're ahead of us just enough that they're going to get here first. But I can imagine just from what I know about physics today that anyone is far enough ahead already that they would have come in the past. And that's why I find the ancient alien unconvincing because of two pieces. One is I can always figure out a way people did whatever it is people were saying people couldn't do. And two I just think the physics of it is unlikely that someone would have been that advanced to come back.
Brad Cooper: 26:25
Right. OK. Well I'm actually ok with the physics. I'm not ok with it being like little green men with big heads and two eyes and looking surprisingly hominid.
Michael Dennin: 26:38
Yes I think that's true.
Brad Cooper: 26:40
Well and that's why I was going to say so that brings me full circle back to Battlestar Galactica and then my kids probably don't like this when I say this too. I think if there's aliens they're going to be robots and which sort of kills just about every science fiction movie that's out there in terms of the enjoyment of it. And that's why they don't it I do it. They would be terminators.
Michael Dennin: 26:58
I like that idea.
Brad Cooper: 27:03
So my kids are Big Star Wars fan here and and also in our house. So as far as the gadgets and things that you evaluated I'm going to hone in on Star Wars, so what are we going to have lightsabers around here?
Michael Dennin: 27:11
I know I would love to. And the sad thing about lightsabers is on the one hand we know how to control and manipulate plasmas and that's basically what it is. And there's actually a lot of cool physics in the thought of having like a magnetically contained plasma that is your lightsaber. And the thing that gets you is I can't get away from or a way that the energy required to generate that just doesn't burn your hand off.
Brad Cooper: 27:37
Yeah. How do you control something like that?
Michael Dennin: 27:39
With the handle, there's no cooling you can come up with. So to me as one of the most frustrating examples of technology in science fiction because it's the coolest one and it comes so close and I can't figure out a way to make it work.
Brad Cooper: 27:50
Right. So what are some of the things though that you that you see just in when you evaluated it from the world of superheroes that maybe people would be surprised to know that actually some of these technologies might be around the corner. Is there anything that you can think of from the shows that you know people might have thought, "I didn't realize that we actually could have anti-gravity."
Michael Dennin: 28:11
I think one of the big ones is the floating skateboards from back to the future. People are already working on various versions of hoverboard. There are some challenges there but it's not inconceivable.
Brad Cooper: 28:24
That's good to here because most of the hover boards around here are made in China are blowing up on people. So we have actually the ones that actually hover that would be a good thing.
Michael Dennin: 28:30
That would be nice. The other one is you know it's interesting like just Spider-Man going back to him his climbing the wall. There's fascinating technology involving nano fibers in nanotubes to make pad things that people can use that make climbing walls. They kind of mimic geckos I think they even called the gecko pad. I do think there's a funny, I've seen people use it in their physics talks, a funny old Dick Tracy comic that says the person controls magnetism control the world or something. And it in a flying can and using magnetism. I do think we haven't seen the full potential of magnetic technology in various interesting ways. You think of like the land speed or from Star Wars.
Brad Cooper: 29:14
Right. That would be coo! Might be a little expensive but definitely cool!
Michael Dennin: 29:16
They might be they might require special roads. I mean that you may not be able take it wherever you want.
Brad Cooper: 29:20
You're all in the tubes that Elon Musk wants to build around California here I guess you'd be safe actually. But it would definitely be cool to have a land speeder pull in your driveway. So you know talking about the the aliens show and you know so when people look at that again we laugh at it as sort of entertainment. You know how the pyramids were built, I mean granted that's pretty fascinating. It's pretty amazing. It's a pretty amazing human you know creation. But then you know people might look at that and say OK well there's some miracles in the Bible and the Christian faith. I mean how do you reconcile the two or differentiate the two in your mind?
Michael Dennin: 29:51
At its core things like ancient aliens are coming from the sort of Western scientific mode to explain what happened. How did they build the pyramid? How did they make Stonehedge? How did they do this or that? I mean a lot of the ancient alien theories come from the fact that people told stories about gods and goddesses and angels. And these must have been based on something that they experienced. So there are probably stories about aliens coming. So that's kind of that space. Particularly after writing my book and doing these I thought a lot and miracles are I think the most fascinating one because what I don't understand about the public debate between science and religion is at least everything I see is almost always around evolution or creation which is one area that I find fascinating because to me there's no conflict there. If you think about faith and science correctly the easiest to reconcile and I'm just fascinated that the bacon stays so loud there is really nothing to debate. I'm like I'm glad no one's noticed miracles because I'd hate to have to discuss that. And so I thought I actually wrote a chapter on it in my book and I found a lot about it.
And it's sometimes hard to articulate because the English language can get a little tricky because I always tell people when I start talking science that's pretty easy. I might use jargon on you but at least the jargon is well defined. And if you remind me I use the jargon I can then define it in a very clear way. When I start talking about God and faith, I'm really talking about things that are infinite and human language is finite. And so you're almost always using some sort of metaphor, analogy description. And if you don't quite get what I'm saying you might get really upset at me unless you take the time to find out what I'm saying. And what I realize is I firmly believe God acts in the world and that's what a miracle is. But then I ask myself the question when I read the Bible I read Miracles like what's the point of these? And if I put myself in the framework of the people writing down the stories who have had these amazing experiences of God, you realize that they didn't think the way Western scientists think. They weren't really interested in giving an accurate detailed description of what just happened. They were trying to articulate a deep experience of God that transformed them.
We tend to immediately equate a miracle is only meaningful if the laws of physics are violated. And so that leads to two possible sort of directions of going. If I'm of a more atheistic bent I say, see we know the laws of physics never violated that's why miracles don't happen. That's why I know God doesn't exist or if I'm a more believing in God bent, I'm like see God's all powerful God breaks the laws of physics and that proves God exists and the problem to me with that use of miracles as it only kind of works if you already believe God exists. So I started looking at the miracles in the Bible and what fascinated me is I realized I was missing like some of the key messages because I was focused on the physics and what physics might have been violated and did it really happen? Could it be that way? What does it mean? And not what the author was trying to communicate to me. My favorite example is Noah and the Ark because you actually get people having semi-serious discussions about whether the ark was actually built. And I've seen some great attempts of people to actually put an ark made of wood of that type of that size into a mechanical like programs to see if it would be stable. And you read that story and then I realized two things.
One is every ancient culture had a flood story and almost all the time you have a flood story because God is mad at you and wants to wipe you out. So I was reading the one that made it into the Bible. It's in our tradition and I realized at the end of that story there's an amazing surprise. God shows the rainbow and says I'm never going to do this again. That's my covenant with you. I'm not a god that wipes people out. I'm a god that loves you and wants to have a covenant with you in a relationship with you and I was blown away and I thought how often now are even Christians turning to natural disasters and saying God was punishing someone. How can you believe that if you believe in the miracles of God one of which was to say I'm never going to do that again. And it was kind of transformative for me. You can see I get overly excited about these things.
Brad Cooper: 33:56
No, that's great! I agree. You know some of the healing too. For Jesus, I think again as you said again, it was less about the physics of Jesus healing someone or even bringing them back to life. It was more about the message that he was sending. Right?
Michael Dennin: 34:10
Exactly and even there you can see it he'll say things like which is harder? Forgiving this person or bringing him back to life? OK, you're going to make me bring him back to life because then you'll believe in me but the other thing I realized in all of this is we also know and it's very common and a theme in the Bible. God is that quiet word in our heart. The surprise in various places and maybe there is a healing miracle, maybe God really was the reason I got better. But did it in such a subtle way that if I was a doctor monitoring myself, the human body heals and heal itself I wouldn't notice a violation of laws of physics but maybe that was God's quiet way of talking to me. And that doesn't make the miracle any less real. But I really don't think we need to violate the laws of physics for God to act in our lives, make his presence known to us and have that real transformative influence. And that was a real fundamental kind of, in my mind, I felt realization that came to me while writing the book that I know makes some believers nervous because they're at that stage which is a perfectly fine one where they're grappling with how to understand God acting in their lives. And the only way they can conceptualize it is by God doing something what I would call magical. And I talk about it as a move from the magical to the actual miracle.
Brad Cooper: 35:18
It makes sense and part of it is because of how we're sort of on the defensive too. So we're always looking for exactly defending miracles as proof versus as you were saying sort of seeing them for what you know. And in some ways they were but in other ways you know it was also for believers to reinforce and have God communicate you know something pretty important too.
Michael Dennin: 35:38
And real quickly on the miracles, I also feel like when I look at the miracles of Jesus and this didn't make it in the book as much because I realized it only later and talking about these in various public talks and with audiences is, there's a call to social justice if I've ever heard one. And John in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, " I do these. But you will do even greater works than I." And when you look at what the miracles are - feeding people, healing people, forgiving people sins. And if we're supposed to do greater things and Jesus did then we should be trying to be these miracles instead of waiting for God to work magic. And I find it very challenging but very exciting to have that call reinforced to be that person.
Brad Cooper: 36:15
Amen! Well and along those lines you know one of the ways that we can answer that call I believe and we believe it at Purpose Nation and that we're pretty passionate about is through science and through exact science and technology so however we're seeing at least in the statistics I'd love to hear what you see being at the university there for so many years. It does seem to be in some of the advanced sciences that at least practicing Catholics, practicing Christians and believing Christians are pretty under-represented. If you look at any of the Pew studies or any of the research that's out there, I mean in some cases it's almost double the number of either other faiths or non-faith you know in atheism than believing Catholics and Christians. And the other statistic that I saw was that Buddhists and atheists and agnostics are twice as likely, twice as likely as Christians to be even interested in reading about science news.
Michael Dennin: 36:15
Brad Cooper: 37:02
We're in a little bit of a problem. And I mean are you seeing that?
Michael Dennin: 37:02
Yes and no.
Brad Cooper: 37:08
I don't know the kind of the statistics you even keep track of your university for example?
Michael Dennin: 37:12
I think there's hope and I think you're right. So part of it, this is the other reason I wrote the book and I tried to write it not as a debate or competition because here's what I recognized. We had reached this point in the US where the loudest voices were what I would call extreme fundamentalist Christians and extreme atheists. And the one thing they both agreed on is that science and faith were not compatible.
Brad Cooper: 37:36
And they can sell a lot of books if they debate each other right.
Michael Dennin: 37:39
They came to very different conclusions and debated each other. But at the same time you know the message as an average person you would get. And I was running to more and more Catholics who were just unsure of science. They weren't really getting the information they needed to make an informed choice. They would hear the fundamentalists and then would think OK even as a Catholic if I'm going to believe in God obviously that's inconsistent with evolution because the scientists are telling me also that it's inconsistent with evolution. If I'm going to choose between science and my faith, my faith is something I experience deeply I'm going to choose that. But I think there's hope so last year a group of Catholic scientists I joined but I wasn't part of the forming of the Society of Catholic Scientists. The various criteria one is being a practicing Catholic and two is being a practicing scientist at a university or a research lab and they already have 500 members. Now I don't know what that percentage is but that's a fairly visible membership and they have official approval of the Catholic Church. They've gotten a charter. You know they're moving forward and I was surprised that there were that many.
Brad Cooper: 37:39
Michael Dennin: 38:39
But but pleasantly so. As we mentioned you've had two of my colleagues on your show and I'm at UC Irvine in the physics department.
Brad Cooper: 38:47
It's a surprisingly number and you would agree that's unusual.
Michael Dennin: 38:51
That's what I don't know and that's what I want to find out. I usually trust polls. I mean people are pretty good at that. And I do wonder why when I run into so many Catholics or Christians in the science circles that it seems to the polls point the other way and I don't know if it's just we attract each other.
Brad Cooper: 39:07
Right. Well and the other analogy is it's kind of like you don't notice babies until you have one.
Michael Dennin: 39:07
Brad Cooper: 39:15
And that's really I think that's part of it. But think also to what I've noticed is for whatever reason, Christians and Catholics seem to become physicists.
Michael Dennin: 39:24
And all that may be true too! And there is more biologists out there than physicists. But the other thing I think that happens is, and this is something I think the church has to think about. If I speak very specifically about the Catholic Church you know we've lost a lot of Europe as being practicing Catholics. It's declining in the US. It's still on the rise and big in the third world. And this is the educator in me. I don't think the Catholic Church has come to grips with and educated laity as well as it could. And so there's a great quote in St. Paul in one of his letters. You know when I was child I believe like a child and as an adult I believe like an adult. And I think at times our church as great as it is, doesn't always adjust its message in any discussion to the level of parishioners. And it does the parishioners a disservice and it doesn't help them embrace what science really is.
Brad Cooper: 40:16
Right. So I mean coming from a secular institution now and you've spent time in Catholic schools too and there's obviously many very good Catholic universities as well. I mean what are some of your thoughts that you know ways that we could sort of reverse, if there is a trend to reverse it or to get more science and technology type education at a higher level and to get more Christians and Catholics to embrace it and not be afraid of it?
Michael Dennin: 40:41
Well one of the things that I get to do which is immense pleasure and works really well is I speak, because my wife is the Religion Department Chair of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, and I have been approved by the diocese to speak on science. And I go in every year and speak to all the freshman religion classes. And one of the things that religion teachers have learned is even though they try and articulate that science is acceptable. It's fascinating, the students take it more seriously from me. You know when I come and speak about my faith and about being a scientist it goes really well. I don't know what that psychology is but it gives them a chance to then articulate it with their parents. And I think it gives their parents a chance to realize that OK science isn't going to ruin their faith.
Brad Cooper: 41:20
And that's awesome that you're doing that. Professor Dennin that's great. Getting in front of those Catholic high school students and one that's part of the reason we have this podcast is so we can you know so people can hear from you directly and hear your story and your faith journey as well as you know your science journey. This is not rinky-dink stuff here. You're doing some pretty amazing work and as well as your colleagues and you mentioned the Society of Catholic Scientists. We had Jonathan Lunine who was part of the team that put Cassini into Saturn. I mean there are Christians and Catholics out there doing some pretty amazing things. And I think that's important for them to know OK this is the real world. You know these are actual things that I can get involved with and I can contribute to and especially if there's some practical sort of outcome being a part of curing cancer or you know some other very big to tackle into society so to have them hear from somebody firsthand is great. So you know any other sort of advice maybe you give to young people who are considering venturing into a career in the sciences.
Michael Dennin: 42:12
Just real quickly to follow what advice to give and I think the biggest thing is to realize because it's really hard in science. We claim to be very rational. We claim to be very pure review oriented but we do still tend to occasionally look to the giants of the field and give them a lot of credit. And you have to recognize that the famous scientist who then started speaking on religion and faith don't necessarily know any more than you about faith. And so really approach what they're saying with some skepticism and watched their sentences they tend to make statements that are no less religious than statements of faith where they say this is true just because it's true. And you know I hate to say it that way because I think there are people I have a lot of great respect for their science and I also in many cases understand a little bit where they're coming from you know why they question God's existence.
But at the end of the day and I talk about this in the book they're really making certain assumptions about reality and starting with those. And when you do a logical argument your logic is only as good as your initial assumption. And so you have to pay less attention to their logic and more to their initial assumptions and just feel comfortable that you have some good value to bring. St. Augustine has a great little book. And it's weird it's called on the literal meaning of Genesis and it's about how you shouldn't take Genesis literally because it doesn't match science and that's OK because that's not what it was meant to do. The more you educate yourself about the Bible and how it was written and the different parts of it and the different styles of literature we used the more you start to realize that this all works, it's all OK.
Brad Cooper: 43:38
Yeah. When you were talking earlier you know about, when we were talking about ancient aliens and we're talking about miracles and you know looking at just I mean if you were to take a good hard look at sort of the historical data about the Bible and how it written and when it was written and sort of what happened afterwards and how quickly the Christian faith grew, it's a pretty interesting historical exercise and you can look at it too and put some evidence behind it. And just for your own knowledge, even if it's not you know something you need to use to defend the faith.
Michael Dennin: 43:38
Brad Cooper: 44:04
But it's a pretty interesting historical adventure.
Michael Dennin: 44:06
And I think it said something great. It's not about being defensive. I know it's hard to get out of that mentality but it is about those experiments and that's what we do science as I like to say. But there's also experience and experience informs our reason as much as experiments do.
Brad Cooper: 44:22
Well great Professor Dennin, thanks so much for the time. What's coming up for you? Do we have any new either ancient alien shows or tech shows or any other show? You just said like a comic con type thing or something.
Michael Dennin: 44:32
We're just at Comic-Con language Comic-Con where we're trying to work on. So one of the things I did was a YouTube series with the guy Daniel Glenn and we're trying to work on another follow up to that. We had done a panel on the science of Willy Wonka and its technology. And so we're looking at doing maybe just the straight science of various technologies and shows. I am really looking for it. I did not get it in time this year for 2018 but the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress I would love to speak there and I'm working with them to maybe something in 2019 which is kind of farther away and that's what we got going.
Brad Cooper: 45:04
The Willy Wonka thing I'd love to know how we're going to do the everlasting gobstoppers.
Michael Dennin: 45:08
Yes and I learned unfortunately that the best chance at that is some sort of bacteria filled ceramic casing. It made me real worried but a microbiologist was explaining how all this was going to work.
Brad Cooper: 45:23
OK, that doesn't sound too appetizing I don't think I'm gonna go for that one.
Michael Dennin: 45:25
Then I was reminded my mouth is probably full of bacteria. Right. So what do I know.
Brad Cooper: 45:29
That's true! Well Professor Dennin, thanks so much for your time today we really appreciate you coming on and we definitely look forward having you back in sometime in the future. Talk about some shows and things you're working on and not just God bless you and your work there at UCI.
Michael Dennin: 45:42
OK! Thank you very much.
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