Sarbmeet Kanwal and on-stage co-host Ben Freeberg talk about Chaos to Cosmos, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019
Ben Freeberg: This is Expert Open Radio. I’m Ben Freeberg and I’m one of the on-stage hosts of TEDxAsburyPark. Today I’m with Sarbmeet Kanwal, who is a speaker at the 2019 TEDxAsburyPark conference on May 18th. Welcome, Sarbmeet.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: Thank you very much, Ben.
Ben Freeberg: Just to start off, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you're going to be speaking about this May at TEDxAsburyPark.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: My name is Sarbmeet Kanwal and I’m currently an Adjunct Professor at Brookdale Community College here in Monmouth County (NJ), where I teach astronomy and modern physics. I've been doing that for the last five or six years. Before that I had a fairly long career in AT&T/Bell Labs as a telecommunications engineer and prior to that, I earned a PhD from California Institute of Technology in physics.
Ben Freeberg: That's great. What is the title of your talk going to be this year? What inspired it?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: The title of my talk is "Chaos to Cosmos."
Ben Freeberg: And how did you come across that idea? It seems pretty natural.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: One of the things that has always been a passion for me is my interest first and foremost in astronomy, cosmology, physics. I would say those have been with me right from pretty much my childhood. But along with that, I've always had an abiding interest in philosophy, spirituality, and over time that has transformed more into an interest in wanting to make a difference, wanting to communicate to the community, and to find ways in which we can improve the lot of our lives--and for that matter the lot of the world as well. So, those are some of the inspirations that drove me to this particular talk.
Ben Freeberg: And what in particular has resonated really well with audiences in terms of how you reach them or communicate with them in order to help inspire that change?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: Another one of my passions is teaching and that's why I've been doing that for a while. But for the last four or five years I have also developed a practice of giving lectures to adults. My college actually has what's called a Lifelong Learning program. They approached me to give lectures to adult learners about science and astronomy. And that is one of the things that has gotten me into this kind of relationship with my community and an understanding that some of the things I have learned and thought about really do make an impact if they’re presented in the right kind of way.
Ben Freeberg: Have you been working with anyone else? Other professors or other people in the field who have inspired you or done some interesting work?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: My inspiration has partly come from my audiences; they have been amazing asking me difficult questions, which I occasionally have to go and learn and research. But also I would say that I've derived a lot of inspiration from some of the authors and the books that I have discovered along the way, which have really made a difference in the way that I thought. Those have helped bring a lot of different thoughts together for me so I can think in much broader ways than I could before.
Ben Freeberg: And is there any one book or author that comes to mind for our listeners who might want to get some of the raw knowledge?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: Yes, there most certainly is one. In fact, if there was one book I would say that has given me the inspiration for my talk and has kind of changed the way that I think about things, it's a book by an astrophysicist, Brian Swimme. The title of the book is kind of interesting too. It is The Universe is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story (Bear and Company, 1984)
Interestingly, the reason that he picked that title is because he firmly believes that some of the mystery that is inherent in our universe cannot really be expressed very well with our language, the one that we have right now. So, by putting in this green dragon, which is an absurd way of referring to our universe, he's trying to convey the point that there really is no way to label our universe with the language that we have today.
Ben Freeberg: That's quite an idea. So, going back to your TEDxAsburyPark talk in particular, why now for this idea? What else is going on where you feel like this is the right time and why is this idea growing?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: One of the reasons why I feel that this is the right time for the kind of ideas that I'm going to convey in my talk is that we are increasingly, as a country and as a world, beset with problems that are so complex, that are so difficult that we're not making a lot of headway in solving them. As a matter a fact, we seem to be (in many cases) digging deeper holes for ourselves in trying to figure out a way to get around these things.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: So my talk really springs from the premise that all of us work from certain contexts that we have developed in our lives. We use these contexts to make all of our decisions and to take all of our actions. Some people may call these perspectives. I prefer to use the word context. So, not only do we solve the problems in our own lives with the context that we live from, but as a community, we have common contexts from which we figure out how to make decisions and solve our problems. My feeling is that the contexts that we are currently living from are too narrow to solve the huge problems that our world is currently encountering.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: It turns out that in the last half a century, scientists have almost stumbled upon a new context that applies to our whole universe, to our cosmos, and it seems to me, increasingly so, that if people start to imbibe the full magnitude of that context, then their whole premise from which to solve their problems will hugely expand. And by doing that, I believe that we will be able to better tackle some of the issues that we have today. So, that's really the basic premise of what I want to convey in my talk.
Ben Freeberg: If we dive a little bit deeper, are there any specific issues or specific ways that we have been handling it that you think are really prime for this disruption and this new mindset?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: One simple thing to think about is that often the contexts that we have developed for ourselves are limited to our nationality, to our race, to our religion, to our communities, and so on. The potential of thinking from a cosmic perspective is that we can develop contexts that transcend these divisions from which we operate today. So, that's one of the simple things that I think comes across. As a matter a fact, it's almost exactly 50 years ago that a photo called "The Earthrise"was taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8. This is when they observed the earth rising from the landscape of the moon. That one photo, when it was sort of imbibed by society and by people, seems to have made a huge difference--at least for a short period of time.
And in my view, that was because of the context that particular photo created for people where they didn’t see any political boundaries; instead, they saw the earth as one tiny little ball floating in space. So, that's an example of the context. Would you like me to give you a couple more examples?
Ben Freeberg: Yes. Well, one more would be great.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: Okay. So, one other thing--and this is going to be the heart of my talk--I believe that if you study the 14 billion-year history of our cosmos, which is how it originated from a small fireball to all the galaxies and the stars that we see in the universe today, we can actually see how that process has developed, how stars were created, how galaxies were created, how life was created. Every time we look at those processes ... well, first of all, they've all been successful. If they weren't successful, we wouldn't be here today. The universe has succeeded in creating a self-reflexive human race, which is an amazing achievement itself. But if you look into the details of that, you find that those developments are never straight. They all kind of start with a bit of chaos, a bit of struggle. It's almost as if the universe is feeling its way to some kind of a lasting balance, which when found can do amazing things. For example, the star is a balance between gravity and pressure. The galaxy is a balance between the gravitational force and what's called the inertia of all the stars moving in orbits around the center of the galaxy.
These balances that have basically lasted for billions of years didn't happen overnight. They went through sort of a meandering process. So one of the things that tells us is that if you believe that we are still going through a development, still going through an evolution, then we're not going to get the answers to all of these problems very easily. But we have to persevere. You know, gravity never decided that it was going to shut off. So, it is our perseverance and our optimism that these problems will indeed have a solution. That should give us a lot of inspiration to continue to work on them and to be patient about some of those things. So, that's one of the things that I talk about.
Ben Freeberg: That's great. When you're teaching and sharing this with students, does this talk and this idea, does it relate very closely to the coursework, or is this something that you've been doing outside of it?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: It's mostly outside of it. These are the kinds of ideas that I talk about when I'm doing my adult teaching. In fact it is that resonance that gives me the confidence that these are ideas that are worth sharing. As a matter of fact, I got invited last summer, very unexpectedly, to give a sermon at the Unitarian United Church in Lincroft. It was kind of a surprise, because you know, that's not the kind of stuff that I do. I teach astronomy.
But somehow, somebody thought that I would do that. So, in preparing for that, I actually came across a lot of these ideas that I'm talking to you about. The sermon was very successful to the point that later on many people in the audience wanted me to continue with a series of lectures going into more depth.
So I gave actually a series of four lectures in October of 2018...one every week, and those went really well. People were even more excited and now as of this month we are starting a monthly study circle to have a lot of people come together and continue to talk about these ideas and how we can spread them into the world. I'm very excited about it.
Ben Freeberg: Is there any one piece of advice that you have given to students of any age that you would like to share with our audience?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: Well, one of the things that I tell people is that when they're thinking about the cosmos, they should not jump to conclusions quickly, because we are conditioned in so many different ways to already have a certain way of thinking about things, and we've grown up with certain ideas, so sometimes people get closed up and they don't want to listen to some of the things that I have to say. So, one of the things I tell them is to keep an open mind, you know? Let these thoughts enter into your mind and then decide what you want to do with them.
Ben Freeberg: One last question before we have to wrap up here. If people in our audience want to continue their relationship with both you and the idea, what's the best way that they can do that?
Sarbmeet Kanwal: That's a good question as well. I'm not really active on social media. I have a Facebook page, but I don't go there very often. But given what's all happening here and the fact that this TEDxAsburyPark opportunity has come my way, I'm very motivated now to create a presence. So, I'm seriously thinking about creating a website.
Perhaps a blog site as well. I also have a glint in my eye about maybe one day writing a book, but we'll see how that works. So, right now the best way to reach me would be simply by email. But as the months go by, I'm sure that there will be other ways in which people will be able to get to some of the material that I have to talk about, including this summer, when my talk will be posted on the TEDxAsburyPark website.
Ben Freeberg: Well, Sarbmeet, thank you so much. And to the audience, thank you for listening (or reading via the TEDxAsburyPark blog).
You've been listening to Expert Open Radio. Here’s a reminder to get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the east coast. It's TEDxAsburyPark on Saturday, May 18, 2019 and you'll have an opportunity to hear Sarbmeet talk about the cosmos and go into more detail then.
Thank you again for your time.
Sarbmeet Kanwal: Thank you, Ben. Thank you.