Author of Ph.D. Comics, particle physicist celebrate how little scientists know

Michael Iwaniec

In 1997, Stanford robotics doctoral student Jorge Cham spent much of his time “taking procrastination to the next level” by posting comic strips to the school’s student forum. His comics tackled the turbulence of finding a place in crowded academia, struggling to progress as a researcher and the feeling of “being crushed by advisors who are way more intelligent than you.”

Out of this pastime, Cham found a new career as a cartoonist, left the world of academia and started the website PHD Comics. To Cham, PHD Comics was more than a hobby; rather, it was a kind of group therapy for those going through the same tribulations of academic life.

Cham, along with co-author and University of California, Irvine particle physicist Daniel Whiteson, discussed their book “We Have No Idea” at UT on Wednesday in a filled auditorium.

Whiteson, a longtime fan of Cham’s comics, reached out to Cham in 2012 in an effort to utilize animation to explain the complexities of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle associated with giving mass to all other particles. Cham would later animate their conversation about the Higgs boson, and the video topped trending lists on YouTube and was shared by The New York Times.

“If there’s one point I can make, it’s that this is why it’s important to share your research,” Whiteson said. “Let the public know what you’re doing.”

Cham said the idea for the book arose when the two realized the significance of what they dubbed “the science gap,” the idea that there exists looming unknowns in scientists’ current understanding of the universe.

“So many popular science books today are about what we’ve found out,” Cham said. “We wanted this to be about what we don’t. It’s a celebration of human ignorance.”

Whiteson recalled his childhood obsession with the age of explorers. Though humans have run out of continents to discover, there are still what he calls “the big fat questions” left to answer, such as what the universe is made of.

For example, all known matter is made from only around a hundred simple elements found on the periodic table. Reductionism, the idea that the complexities of the physical world can be reduced to simple principles, is the goal of science, according to Whiteson. Particle physics is the next step beyond the periodic table, revealing that all the elements on it can be formed from just a few fundamental particles.

However, this reductionism has led to newfound complexities within the field as scientists struggle to observe new particles and dark matter continues to confound experts.

Dark matter, Whiteson said, is just a word for the unknown matter that helps hold galaxies together with their gravitational pull. Observable matter only makes up 5 percent of the known universe, while dark matter constitutes 27 percent and dark energy, a yet unknown energy thought to cause the expansion of the universe, comprises 68 percent.

This, according to the authors, is an inspiration.

“Most of the discoveries in the universe have not happened yet,” Whiteson said. “I like to imagine that we’re in the golden age of discovery right now. That in decades, people will look back at what we’ll find and think the answers were right in front of our face.”