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Transcript for Lee Cronin: Controversial Nature Paper on Evolution of Life and Universe | Lex Fridman Podcast #404

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #404 with Lee Cronin.
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Introduction

Lee Cronin
(00:00:00)
Every star in the sky probably has planets and life is probably emerging on these planets. But I think the commentorial space associated with these planets is so different. Our causal cones are never going to overlap or not easily. And this is the thing that makes me sad about alien life, why we have to create alien life in the lab as quickly as possible because I don’t know if we are going to be able to build architectures that will intersect with alien intelligence architectures.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:35)
Intersect, you don’t mean in time or space-
Lee Cronin
(00:00:38)
Time and the ability to communicate.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:40)
The ability to communicate.
Lee Cronin
(00:00:41)
Yeah. My biggest fear in a way is that life is everywhere, but we’ve become infinitely more lonely because of our scaffolding in that commentorial space.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:52)
The following is a conversation with Lee Cronin, his third time in this podcast. He’s a chemist from University of Glasgow who is one of the most fascinating, brilliant and fun to talk to scientists I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. This is the Lex Fridman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Lee Cronin.

Assembly theory paper


(00:01:16)
So your big assembly theory paper was published in Nature. Congratulations.
Lee Cronin
(00:01:21)
Thanks.
Lex Fridman
(00:01:21)
It created, I think it’s fair to say, a lot of controversy, but also a lot of interesting discussion. So maybe I can try to summarize assembly theory and you tell me if I’m wrong.
Lee Cronin
(00:01:32)
Go for it.
Lex Fridman
(00:01:33)
So assembly theory says that if we look at any object in the universe, any object, that we can quantify how complex it is by trying to find the number of steps it took to create it. And also we can determine if it was built by a process akin to evolution by looking at how many copies of the object there are.
Lee Cronin
(00:01:55)
Yep. That’s spot on. Yep.
Lex Fridman
(00:01:56)
Spot on.
Lee Cronin
(00:01:57)
Spot on.
Lex Fridman
(00:01:58)
I was not expecting that. Okay, so let’s go through definitions. So there’s a central equation I’d love to talk about, but definition wise, what is an object?
Lee Cronin
(00:02:11)
Yeah, an object. So if I’m going to try to be as meticulous as possible, objects need to be finite and they need to be decomposable into sub-units. All human made artifacts are objects. Is a planet an object? Probably yes, if you scale out. So an object is finite and accountable and decomposable, I suppose, mathematically. But yeah, I still wake up some days and go to think to myself, what is an object? Because it’s a non-trivial question.
Lex Fridman
(00:02:50)
Persists over time, I’m quoting from the paper here. An object is finite, is distinguishable. I’m sure that’s a weird adjective, distinguishable.
Lee Cronin
(00:03:03)
We’ve had so many people help offering to rewrite the paper after it came out. You wouldn’t believe it’s so funny.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:10)
Persists over time. And is breakable such that the set of constraints to construct it from elementary building blocks is quantifiable, such that the set of constraints to construct it from elementary building blocks is quantifiable.
Lee Cronin
(00:03:25)
The history is in the objects. It’s kind of cool, right?
Lex Fridman
(00:03:29)
Okay. So what defines the object is its history or memory, whichever is the sexier word.
Lee Cronin
(00:03:36)
I’m happy with both depending on the day.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:38)
Okay, so the set of steps it took to create the object. So there’s a sense in which every object in the universe has a history. And that is part of the thing that is used to describe its complexity. How complicated it is. Okay, what is an assembly index?
Lee Cronin
(00:04:00)
So the assembly index, if you’re to take the object apart and be super lazy about it or minimal say ’cause it’s like you’ve got a really short-term memory. So what you do is you lay all the parts on the path and you find the minimum number of steps you take on the path to add the parts together to reproduce the object. And that minimum number is the assembly index. It’s minimum bound. And it was always my intuition, the minimum bound and assembly theory was really important that I only worked out why a few weeks ago, which is kind of funny ’cause I was just like, “No, this is sacrosanct. I don’t know why, it’ll come to me one day.”

(00:04:37)
And then when I was pushed by a bunch of mathematicians, we came up with the correct physical explanation, which I can get to, but it’s the minimum and it’s really important. It’s the minimum. And the reason I knew the minimum was right is because we could measure it. So almost before this paper came out, we’d published papers, explain how you can measure the assembly index of molecules.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:01)
Okay, so that’s not so trivial to figure out. So when you look at an object, we could say a molecule, we could say object more generally. To figure out the minimum number of steps it takes to create that object, that doesn’t seem like a trivial thing to do.
Lee Cronin
(00:05:17)
So with molecules, it is not trivial, but it is possible because what you can do and because I’m a chemist, so I’m kind of like I see the lens of the world for just chemistry. I break the molecule apart and break bonds. And if you take a molecule and you break it all apart, you have a bunch of atoms and then you say, “Okay, I’m going to then take the atoms and form bonds and go up the chain of events to make the molecule.”

(00:05:46)
And that’s what made me realize, take a toy example, literally a toy example, take a Lego object, which is broken up of Lego blocks. So you could do exactly the same thing. In this case, the Lego blocks are naturally the smallest. They’re the atoms in the actual composite Lego architecture. But then if you maybe take a couple of blocks and put them together in a certain way, maybe they’re offset in some way, that offset is on the memory, you can use that offset again with only a penalty of one and you can then make a square, triangle and keep going.

(00:06:19)
And you remember those motifs on the chain. So you can then leap from the start with all the Lego blocks or atoms just laid out in front of you and say, “Right, I’ll take you, you, you,” connect and do the least amount of work. So it’s really like the smallest steps you can take on the graph to make the object. And so for molecules, it came relatively intuitively. And then we started to apply it to language. We’ve even started to apply it to mathematical theorems. But I’m so well out of my depth. But it looks like you can take minimum set of axioms and then start to build up mathematical architectures in the same way. And then the shortest path to get there is something interesting that I don’t yet understand.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:02)
So what’s the computational complexity of figuring out the shortest path with molecules, with language, with mathematical theorems? It seems like once you have the fully constructed Lego castle or whatever your favorite Lego world is, figuring out how to get there from the basic building blocks, is that an empty hard problem? It’s a hard problem.
Lee Cronin
(00:07:28)
It’s a hard problem. But actually if you look at it, so the best way to look at it, let’s take a molecule. So if the molecule has 13 bonds, first of all, take 13 copies of the molecule and just cut all the bonds. So cut 12 bonds and then you just put them in order and then that’s how it works. And you keep looking for symmetry or copies so you can then shorten it as you go down.

(00:07:51)
And that becomes [inaudible 00:07:53] quite hard. For some natural product molecules, it becomes very hard. It’s not impossible, but we’re looking at the bounds on that at the moment. But as the object gets bigger it becomes really hard. But that’s the bad news. But the good news is there are shortcuts. And we might even be able to physically measure the complexity without computationally calculating it, which is kind of insane.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:20)
Wait, how would you do that?
Lee Cronin
(00:08:20)
Well, in the case of molecule, so if you shine light on a molecule, let’s take an infrared. The molecule has each of the bonds absorbs the infrared differently in what we call the fingerprint region. And so it’s a bit like because it’s quantized as well, you have all these discreet kind of absorbances. And my intuition, after we realized we could cut molecules up in mass spec, that was the first go at this. We did it with using infrared. And the infrared gave us an even better correlation assembly index. And we used another technique as well in addition to infrared called NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance, which tells you about the number of different magnetic environments in a molecule. And that also worked out. So we have three techniques which each of them independently gives us the same or tending towards the same assembly index from molecule that we can calculate mathematically.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:12)
So these are all methods of mass spectrometry, mass spec. You scan a molecule, it gives you data in the form of a mass spectrum. And you’re saying that the data correlates to the assembly index?
Lee Cronin
(00:09:25)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:26)
So how generalizable is that shortcut, first of all it’s chemistry. And second of all, beyond that, that seems like a nice hack and you’re extremely knowledgeable about various aspects of chemistry. So you can say, okay, it kind of correlates. But the whole idea behind assembly theory paper and perhaps why it’s so controversial is that it reaches bigger. It reaches for the bigger general theory of objects in the universe.
Lee Cronin
(00:09:58)
Yeah, I’d say so. I’d agree. So I’ve started assembly theory of emoticons with my lab, believe it or not. So we take emojis, pixelate them and work out the assembly index of the emoji and then work out how many emojis you can make on the path of emoji. So there’s the uber emoji from which all other emojis emerge. So you can then take a photograph and by looking at the shortest path, by reproducing the pixels to make the image you want, you can measure that. So then you start to be able to take spatial data.

(00:10:32)
Now there’s some problems there. What is then the definition of the object? How many pixels? How do you break it down? And so we’re just learning all this right now.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:42)
So how do you compute, begin to compute the assembly index of a graphical, a set of pixels on a 2D plane that form a thing?
Lee Cronin
(00:10:54)
So you would first of all determine the resolution. So then what is your XY and what the number on the X and Y plane and then look at the surface area. And then you take all your emojis and make sure they’re all looked at the same resolution. And then we would basically then do exactly the same thing we would do for cutting the bonds. You’d cut bits out of the emoji and look at, you’d have a bag of pixels and you would then add those pixels together to make the overall emoji.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:26)
Wait, wait a minute. But first of all, not every pixels, I mean this is at the core, machine learning and computer vision, not every pixels that important. And there’s macro features, there’s micro features and all that kind of stuff.
Lee Cronin
(00:11:40)
Exactly.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:42)
The eyes appear in a lot of them, the smile appears in a lot of them.
Lee Cronin
(00:11:47)
So in the same way in chemistry we assume the bond is fundamental. What we do in they’re and here is we assume the resolution at the scale at which we do it is fundamental and we’re just working that out. And you’re right, that will change because as you take your lens out a bit, it will change dramatically.

(00:12:02)
But it’s just a new way of looking at, not just compression. What we do right now in computer science and data, one big kind of misunderstanding as assembly theory is telling you about how compressed the object is. That’s not right. It’s how much information is required on a chain of events. Because the nice thing is if, when you do compression and computer science, we’re wandering a bit here, but it’s kind of worth wandering I think, you assume you have instantaneous access to all the information in the memory. In assembly theory you say, “No, you don’t get access to that memory until you’ve done the work.” And then when you’ve done access to that memory, you can have access but not to the next one.

(00:12:45)
And this is how in assembly theory, we talk about the four universes, the assembly universe, the assembly possible, and the assembly contingent, and then the assembly observed. And they’re all scales in this commentorial universe.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:58)
Yeah. Can you explain each one of them?
Lee Cronin
(00:13:00)
Yep. So the assembly universe is like anything goes, just combinatorial kind of explosion in everything.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:07)
So that’s the biggest one?
Lee Cronin
(00:13:08)
That’s the biggest one. It’s massive.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:09)
Assembly universe, assembly possible, assembly contingent, assembly observed. And the Y axis is assembly steps in time and the X axis as the thing expands through time, more and more unique objects appear.
Lee Cronin
(00:13:29)
Yeah, so assembly universe, everything goes. Assembly possible, laws of physics come in this case in chemistry, bonds assembly. So that means-
Lex Fridman
(00:13:39)
Those are extra constraints, I guess?
Lee Cronin
(00:13:40)
Yes. And they’re the only constraints. They’re the constraints at the base. So the way to look at it’s you’ve got all your atoms, they’re contized and you can just bond them together. So then you can become a kind of, so in the way in computer science speak, I suppose the assembly universe is just like no laws of physics. Things can fly through mountains, beyond the speed of light. In the assembly possible. You have to apply the laws of physics, but you can get access to all the motifs instantaneously with no effort. So that means you could make anything.

(00:14:10)
Then the assembly contingent says “No, you can’t have access to the highly assembled object in the future until you’ve done the work in the past on the causal chain.” And that’s really, the really interesting shift where you go from assembly possible to assembly contingent. That is really the key thing in assembly theory that says you cannot just have instantaneous access to all those memories. You have to have done the work. Somehow the universe has to have somehow built a system that allows you to select that path rather than other paths.

(00:14:45)
And then the final thing the assembly observed is basically us saying, “Oh, these are the things we actually see. We can go backwards now and understand that they have been created by this causal process.”
Lex Fridman
(00:14:59)
Wait a minute. So when you say the universe has to construct the system that does the work, is that like the environment that allows for selection?
Lee Cronin
(00:15:08)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:09)
So that’s the thing that does the selection.
Lee Cronin
(00:15:10)
You could think about in terms of a Von Neumann constructor versus a selection, a ribosome, a Tesla plant assembling Teslas. The difference between the assembly universe in Tesla land and the Tesla factory is everyone says, “No, Teslas are just easy. They just spring out, you know how to make them all. The Tesla factory, you have to put things in sequence and out comes a Tesla.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:32)
So you’re talking about the factory?
Lee Cronin
(00:15:33)
Yes. This is really nice, super important point is that when I talk about the universe having a memory or there’s some magic, it’s not that. It’s that tells you that there must be a process encoded somewhere in physical reality, be it a cell, a Tesla factory or something else that is making that object. I’m not saying there’s some kind of woo-woo memory in the universe, morphic resonance or something. I’m saying that there is an actual causal process that is being directed, constrained in some way. So it’s not kind of just making everything.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:10)
Yeah, but Lee, what’s the factory that made the factory? First of all, you assume the laws of physics is just sprung to existence at the beginning. Those are constraints. But what makes the factory the environment that does the selection?
Lee Cronin
(00:16:29)
This is the question of, well, it’s the first interesting question that I want to answer out of four. I think the factory emerges in the interplay between the environment and the objects that are being built. And let me, I’ll have a go at explain to you the shortest path.

(00:16:48)
So why is the shortest path important? Imagine you’ve got, I’m going to have to go chemistry for a moment, then abstract it. So imagine you’ve got a given environment that you have a budget of atoms, you’re just flinging together. And the objective of those atoms that being flung together in say, molecule A, they decompose. So molecules decompose over time. So the molecules in this environment, in this magic environment have to not die, but they do die. They have a half-life.

(00:17:23)
So the only way the molecules can get through that environment out the other side, let’s pretend the environment is a box and can go in and out without dying. And there’s just an infinite supply of atoms coming or, well, a large supply, the molecule gets built, but the molecule that is able to template itself being built and survives in the environment will basically reign supreme.

(00:17:49)
Now let’s say that molecule takes 10 steps and it is using a finite set of atoms. Now, let’s say another molecule, smart ass molecule we’ll call it, comes in and can survive in that environment and can copy itself, but it only needs five steps. The molecule that only needs five steps continued, both molecules are being destroyed, but they’re creating themselves faster they can be destroyed. You can see that the shortest path reigns supreme. So the shortest path tells us something super interesting about the minimal amount of information required to propagate that motif in time and space. And it seems to be like some kind of conservation law.
Lex Fridman
(00:18:35)
So one of the intuitions you have is the propagation of motifs in time will be done by the things that can construct themselves in the shortest path.
Lee Cronin
(00:18:47)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:18:47)
So you can assume that most of the objects in the universe are built in the shortest, in the most efficient way. Big leap I just took there.
Lee Cronin
(00:18:58)
Yeah. Yes and no, because there are other things. So in the limit, yes, because you want to tell the difference between things that have required a factory to build them and just random processes. But you can find instances where the shortest path isn’t taken for an individual object, individual function. And people go, “Ah, that means the shortest path isn’t right.” And then I say, “Well, I don’t know. I think it’s right still because,” so of course, because there are other driving forces, it’s not just one molecule.

(00:19:33)
Now you start to consider two objects, you have a joint assembly space. And it’s not now, it’s a compromise between not just making A and B in the shortest path. You want to be able to make A and B in the shortest path, which might mean that A is slightly longer, compromise. So when you see slightly more nesting in the construction, when you take a given object, that can look longer. But that’s because the overall function is the object is still trying to be efficient. And this is still very hand wavy and maybe having no leg to stand on, but we think we’re getting somewhere with that.
Lex Fridman
(00:20:09)
And there’s probably some parallelization, right?
Lee Cronin
(00:20:12)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:20:12)
So this is not sequential. The building is, I guess.
Lee Cronin
(00:20:17)
No, you’re right.
Lex Fridman
(00:20:18)
When you’re talking about complex objects, you don’t have to work sequentially. You can work in parallel, you can get your friends together and they can…
Lee Cronin
(00:20:25)
Yeah, and the thing we’re working on right now is how to understand these parallel processes. Now there’s a new thing we’ve introduced called assembly depth. And assembly depth can be lower than the assembly index for a molecule when they’re cooperating together because exactly this parallel processing is going on. And my team have been working this out in the last few weeks because we’re looking at what compromises does nature need to make when it’s making molecules in a cell? And I wonder if maybe like, well, I’m always leaping out of my competence, but in economics, I’m just wondering if you could apply this in economic processes. It seems like capitalism is very good at finding shortest path every time. And there are ludicrous things that happen because actually the cost function has been minimized.

(00:21:15)
And so I keep seeing parallels everywhere where there are complex nested systems where if you give it enough time and you introduce a bit of heterogeneity, the system readjusts and finds a new shortest path. But the shortest path isn’t fixed on just one molecule now. It’s in the actual existence of the object over time. And that object could be a city, it could be a cell, it could be a factory, but I think we’re going way beyond molecules and my competence so probably should go back to molecules, but hey.

Assembly equation

Lex Fridman
(00:21:44)
All right, before we get too far, let’s talk about the assembly equation. Okay. How should we do this? Let me just even read that part of the paper. We define assembly as the total amount of selection necessary to produce an ensemble of observed objects quantified using equation one. The equation basically has A on one side, which is the assembly of the ensemble, and then a sum from one to N, where N is the total number of unique objects.

(00:22:20)
And then there is a few variables in there that include the assembly index, the copy number which we’ll talk about. That’s an interesting, I don’t remember you talking about that. That’s an interesting addition and I think a powerful one. It has to do with what, that you can create pretty complex objects randomly, and in order to know that they’re not random, that there’s a factory involved, you need to see a bunch of them. That’s the intuition there. It’s an interesting intuition and then some normalization. What else is and-
Lee Cronin
(00:22:54)
N minus one, just to make sure that more than one object, one object could be a one-off and random. And then you have more than one identical object. That’s interesting.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:03)
When there’s two of a thing.
Lee Cronin
(00:23:05)
Two of a thing is super important, especially if the index assembly index is high.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:10)
So we could say several questions here. One, let’s talk about selection. What is this term selection? What is this term evolution that we’re referring to? Which aspect of Darwinian evolution are we referring to? That’s interesting here.
Lee Cronin
(00:23:26)
Yeah, so this is probably what the paper, we should talk about the paper for a second. The paper, what it did is it kind of annoyed, we didn’t know it. It got intention and obviously the angry people were annoyed.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:39)
There’s angry people in the world. That’s good.
Lee Cronin
(00:23:41)
So what happened is the evolutionary biologists got angry. We were not expecting that. We thought evolutionary biologists would be cool. I knew that some, not many, computational complexity people will get angry because I’ve kind of been poking them and maybe I deserved it, but I was trying to poke them in a productive way. And then the physicists kind of got grumpy because the initial conditions tell everything. The prebiotic chemist got slightly grumpy because there’s not enough chemistry in there. Then finally, when the creationist said it wasn’t creationist enough, I was like, “I’ve done my job.”
Lex Fridman
(00:24:13)
You’re saying the physics, they say, because you’re basically saying that physics is not enough to tell the story of how biology emerges?
Lee Cronin
(00:24:22)
I think so.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:22)
And then they said a few physics is the beginning and the end of the story.
Lee Cronin
(00:24:29)
So what happened is the reason why people put the phone down on the call of the paper, if you view reading the paper like a phone call, they got to the abstract and in the abstract-
Lex Fridman
(00:24:39)
First sentence is pretty strong.
Lee Cronin
(00:24:40)
The first two sentences caused everybody-
Lex Fridman
(00:24:42)
Scientists have grappled with reconciling biological evolution with the immutable laws of the universe defined by physics.
Lee Cronin
(00:24:51)
True, right? There’s nothing wrong with that statement. Totally true.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:55)
Yeah. These laws underpin life’s origin, evolution, and the development of human culture and technology, yet they do not predict the emergence of these phenomena. Wow. First of all, we should say the title of the paper, this paper was accepted and published in Nature. The title is Assembly Theory Explains and Quantifies Selection and Evolution, very humble title. And the entirety of the paper, I think, presents interesting ideas, but reaches high.
Lee Cronin
(00:25:26)
I am not… I would do it all again. This paper was actually on the pre-print server for over a year.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:33)
You regret nothing?
Lee Cronin
(00:25:34)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(00:25:35)
I think, yeah, I don’t regret anything.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:37)
You and Frank Sinatra did it your way.
Lee Cronin
(00:25:39)
What I love about being a scientist is sometimes because I’m a bit dim and I don’t understand what people are telling me, I want to get to the point. This paper says, “Hey, the laws of physics are really cool, the universe is great, but they don’t really, it’s not intuitive that you just run the standard model and get life out.” I think most physicists might go, “Yeah, it’s not just, we can’t just go back and say that’s what happened.” Because physics can’t explain the origin of life yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t. Okay. Just to be clear. Sorry intelligent designers, we are going to get there.

(00:26:16)
Second point, we say that evolution works, but we don’t know how evolution got going. So biological evolution and biological selection. So for me, this seems like a simple continuum. So when I mentioned selection and evolution in the title, I think, and in the abstract, we should have maybe prefaced that and said non-biological selection and non-biological evolutions. And then that might have made it even more crystal clear. But I didn’t think that biology, evolutionary biology, should be so bold to claim ownership of selection and evolution.

(00:26:49)
And secondly, a lot of evolutionary biologists seem to dismiss the origin of life question and just say it’s obvious. And that causes a real problem scientifically because two different, when the physicists are like, ” We own the universe. The universe is good, we explain all of it, look at us.” And even biologists say, “We can explain biology.” And the poor chemists in the middle going, “But hang on.”

(00:27:12)
And this paper kind of says, “Hey, there is an interesting disconnect between physics and biology. And that’s at the point at which memories get made in chemistry through bonds. And hey, let’s look at this close and see if we can quantify it.” So yeah, I never expected the paper to get that much interest. And still, it’s only been published just over a month ago now.
Lex Fridman
(00:27:38)
So just to link on the selection, what is the broader sense of what selection means?
Lee Cronin
(00:27:46)
Yeah, that’s really good. For selection, so I think for selection, so this is where for me, the concept of an object is something that can persist in time and not die, but basically can be broken up. So if I was going to kind of bolster the definition of an object, so if something can form and persist for a long period of time under an existing environment that could destroy other, and I’m going to use anthropomorphic terms, I apologize, about weaker objects or less robust, then the environment could have selected that.

(00:28:30)
So good chemistry examples, if you took some carbon and you made a chain of carbon atoms, whereas if you took some, I don’t know, some carbon, nitrogen and oxygen and made change from those, you’d start to get different reactions and rearrangements. So a chain of carbon atoms might be more resistant to falling apart under a acidic or basic conditions versus another set of molecules. So it survives in that environment. So the acid pond, the resistant molecule can get through. And then that molecule goes into another environment. So that environment now maybe being acid pond is a basic pond or maybe it’s an oxidizing pond. And so if you’ve got carbon and it goes an oxidizing pond, maybe the carbon starts to oxidize and break apart. So you go through all these kind of obstacle courses if you like, given by reality. So selection is the ability happens when object survives in an environment for some time.

(00:29:33)
And this is the thing that’s super subtle. The object has to be continually being destroyed and made by process. So it’s not just about the object now, it’s about the process and time that makes it because a rock could just stand on the mountain side for 4 billion years and nothing happened to it. And that’s not necessarily really advanced selection. So for selection to get really interesting, you need to have a turnover in time. You need to be continually creating objects, producing them, what we call discovery time. So there’s a discovery time for an object.

(00:30:07)
When that object is discovered, if it’s say a molecule that can then act on itself or the chain of events that caused itself to bolster its formation, then you go from discovery time to production time and suddenly you have more of it in the universe. So it could be a self-replicating molecule and the interaction of the molecule in the environment, in the warm little pond or in the sea or wherever in the bubble could then start to build a proto factory, the environment.

(00:30:34)
So really to answer your question, what the factory is, the factory is the environment, but it’s not very autonomous, it’s not very redundant. There’s lots of things that could go wrong. So once you get high enough up the hierarchy of networks, of interactions, something needs to happen that needs to be compressed into a smaller volume and made resistant robust because in biology, selection and evolution is robust that you have error correction built in. You have really, there’s good ways of basically making sure propagation goes on.

(00:31:07)
So really the difference between inorganic, antibiotic selection and evolution and evolution and stuff in biology is robustness the ability to propagate, the ability to survive in lots of different environments. Whereas our poor little inorganic sole molecule, whatever, just dies in lots of different environments. So there’s something super special that happens from the inorganic molecule in the environment that kills it to where you’ve got evolution and cells can survive everywhere.
Lex Fridman
(00:31:44)
How special is that? How do you know those kinds of evolution factors aren’t everywhere in the universe?
Lee Cronin
(00:31:51)
I don’t, and I’m excited because I think selection isn’t special at all. I think what is special is the history of the environments on earth that gave rise to the first cell that now has taken all those environments and is now more autonomous. And I would like to think that, you know this paper could be very wrong, but I don’t think it’s very wrong. I mean it’s certainly wrong, but it’s less wrong than some other ideas, I hope, right? And if this inspires us to go and look for selection in the universe because we now have an equation where we can say, we can look for selection going on and say, “Oh, that’s interesting. We seem to have a process. It’s giving us high copy number objects that also are highly complex, but that doesn’t look like life as we know it.”

(00:32:46)
And we use that and say, “Oh, there’s a hydrothermal vent. Oh, there’s a process going on. There’s molecular networks,” because the assembly equation is not only meant to identify at the higher end advanced selection, what you get, I would call in biology super advanced selection. And even, you could use the assembly equation to look for technology and God forbid we could talk about consciousness and abstraction, but let’s keep it primitive, molecules and biology. So I think the real power of the assembly equation is to say how much selection is going on in this space.

(00:33:20)
And there’s a really simple thought experiment I could do is you have a little Petri dish and on that Petri dish you put some simple food. So the assembly index of all the sugars and everything is quite low. So then, and you put a single cell of E. coli cell and then you say, “I’m going to measure the assembly in this, amount of assembly in the box.” So it’s quite low, but the rate of change of assembly, DADT will go [inaudible 00:33:47] sigmoidal as it eats all the food and the number of coli cells will replicate because they take all the food, they copy themselves, the assembly index of all the molecules goes up, up and up until the food is exhausted in the box. So now the E. coli’s stopped-
Lee Cronin
(00:34:00)
… in the box. So now the E. coli’s stopped… I mean, die is probably a strong word. They stopped respiring because all the food is gone. But suddenly, the amount of assembly in the box has gone up gigantically because of that one E. coli factory has just eaten through, milled lots of other E. coli factories run out of food and stopped. And so that, looking at that… So in the initial box, although the amount of assembly was really small, it was able to replicate and use all the food and go up. And that’s what we’re trying to do in the lab, actually, is make those experiments and see if we can spot the emergence of molecular networks that are producing complexity, as we feed in raw materials and we feed a challenge, an environment. We try and kill the molecules. And really, that’s the main idea for the entire paper.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:52)
Yeah, and see if you can measure the changes in the assembly index throughout the whole system.
Lee Cronin
(00:34:56)
Yeah.

Discovering alien life

Lex Fridman
(00:34:57)
Okay. What about, if I show up to a new planet, we’ll go to Mars or some other planet from a different solar system, how do we use assembly index there to discover alien life?
Lee Cronin
(00:35:11)
Very simply, actually. Let’s say we’ll go to Mars with a mass spectrometer, with a sufficiently high resolution, so what you have to be able to do, so a good thing about mass spec is that you can select the molecule from the mass, and then if it’s high enough resolution, you can be more and more sure that you’re just seeing identical copies. You can count them. And then you fragment them and you count the number of fragments, and look at the molecular weight. And the higher the molecular weight and the higher the number of the fragments, the higher the assembly index.

(00:35:43)
So if you go to Mars and you take a mass spec, with high enough resolution, and you can find molecules, a guide on earth, if you could find molecules, say, greater than 350 molecular weight, with more than 15 fragments, you have found artifacts that can only be produced, at least on earth, by life. And now you would say, “Oh, well, maybe the geological process.” I would argue very virulently that that is not the case.

(00:36:10)
But we can say, “Look, if you don’t like the cutoff on earth, go up higher, 30, 100, because there’s going to be a point where you can find a molecule with so many different parts, the chances of you getting a molecule that has a hundred different parts and finding a million identical copies, that’s just impossible. That could never happen in an infinite set of universes.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:37)
Can you just linger on this copy number thing? A million different copies, what do you mean by copies and why is the number of copies important?
Lee Cronin
(00:36:49)
Yeah, that was so interesting. I always understood the copy number is really important, but I never explained it properly, for ages. And I kept having this, it goes back to this, if I give you a, I don’t know, a really complicated molecule, and I say it’s complicated, you could say, “Hey, that’s really complicated.” But is it just really random?
Lex Fridman
(00:37:12)
Mm-hmm.
Lee Cronin
(00:37:14)
So I realized that ultimate randomness and ultimate complexity are indistinguishable until you can see a structure in the randomness, so you can see copies.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:26)
So copies implies structure.
Lee Cronin
(00:37:31)
Yeah. The factory-
Lex Fridman
(00:37:34)
I mean, there’s a deep profound thing in there. Because if you just have a random process, you’re going to get a lot of complex, beautiful, sophisticated things.
Lee Cronin
(00:37:46)
Mm-hmm.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:47)
What makes them complex in the way we think life is complex or, yeah, something like a factory that’s operating under a selection processes, there should be copies. Is there some looseness about copies? What does it mean for two objects to be equal?
Lee Cronin
(00:38:06)
It’s all to do with the telescope or the microscope you’re using. And so, at the maximum resolution… The nice thing about chemists is they have this concept of the molecule and they’re all familiar with the molecule. And molecules, you can hold on your hand, lots of them, identical copies. A molecule is actually a super important thing in chemistry, to say, look, you can have a mole of a molecules, an Avogadro’s number of molecules, and they’re identical. What does that mean? That means that the molecular composition, the bonding and so on, the configuration is indistinguishable. You can hold them together. You can overlay them.

(00:38:43)
So the way I do it is if I say, “Here’s a bag of 10 identical molecules, let’s prove they’re identical.” You pick one out of the bag and you basically observe it, using some technique, and then you take it away and then you take another one out. If you observe it using technique, you see no differences. They’re identical. It’s really interesting to get right. Because if you take, say, two molecules, molecules can be in different vibrational rotational states. They’re moving all the time.

(00:39:09)
So in this respect, identical molecules have identical bonding. In this case, we don’t even talk about chirality, because we don’t have a chirality detector. So two identical molecules in one conception, assembly theory, basically considers both hands as being the same. But, of course, they’re not, they’re different. As soon as you have a chiral distinguisher to detect the left and the right hand, they become different. And so, it’s to do with the detection system that you have and the resolution.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:39)
So I wonder if there’s an art and science to the, which detection system is used when you show up to a new planet.
Lee Cronin
(00:39:49)
Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:49)
So you’re talking about chemistry a lot today. We have standardized detection systems of how to compare molecules. So when you start to talk about emojis and language and mathematical theorems and, I don’t know, more sophisticated things at different scale, at a smaller scale than molecules, at a larger scale than molecules, what detection… If we look at the difference between you and me, Lex and Lee, are we the same? Are we different?
Lee Cronin
(00:40:24)
Sure. I mean, of course we’re different close up, but if you zoom out a little bit, we will morphologically look the same. High in characteristics, hair length, stuff like that.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:35)
Well, also, the species and-
Lee Cronin
(00:40:37)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:38)
… and also there’s a sense why we’re both from earth.
Lee Cronin
(00:40:42)
Yeah, I agree. I mean, this is the power of assembly theory in that regard. So if everything… So the way to look at it, if you have a box of objects, if they’re all indistinguishable, then using your technique, what you then do is you then look at the assembly index. Now, if the assembly index of them is really low and they’re all indistinguishable, then they’re telling you that you have to go to another resolution. So that would be, it is a sliding scale. It’s nice.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:15)
Got it. So those two are attentional with each other.
Lee Cronin
(00:41:18)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:18)
The number of copies and the assembly index.
Lee Cronin
(00:41:20)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:22)
That’s really, really interesting. So, okay. So you show up to a new planet, you’ll be doing what?
Lee Cronin
(00:41:28)
I would do mass spec. I would bring-
Lex Fridman
(00:41:30)
On a sample of what? First of all, how big of a scoop do you take? Do you just take a scoop? What… So we’re looking for primitive life.
Lee Cronin
(00:41:42)
I would look… Yeah, so if you’re just going to Mars or Titan or Enceladus, or somewhere, so a number of ways of doing it. So you could take a large scoop or you go through the atmosphere and detect stuff. You could make a life meter, right? One of Sarah’s colleagues at ASU, Paul Davies, keeps calling it a life meter, which is quite a nice idea. Because you think about it, if you’ve got a living system that’s producing these highly complex molecules and they drift away, and they’re in a highly demanding environment, they could be burnt, right? So they could just be falling apart. So you want to sniff a little bit of complexity and say warmer, warmer, warmer. Oh, we’ve found life, we found the alien. We’ve found the alien Elon Musk, smoking a joint in the bottom of the cave on Mars, or Elon himself, whatever, right?
Lex Fridman
(00:41:42)
Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Lee Cronin
(00:42:34)
You say, “Okay, found it.” So what you can do is a mass spectrometer, you could just look for things in the gas phase or you go on the surface, drill down, because you want to find molecules that are… Well, you’ve either got to find the source, living system, because the problem with just looking for complexity is it gets burnt away. So in a harsh environment on, say, on the surface of Mars, there’s a very low probability that you’re going to find really complex molecules because of all the radiation and so on.

(00:43:05)
If you drill down a little bit, you could drill down a bit into soil that’s billions of years old. Then I would put in some solvent, water, alcohol, or something, or take a scoop, make it volatile, put it into the mass spectrometer and just try and detect high complexity, high abundant molecules. And if you get them, hey, presto, you can have evidence of life. Wouldn’t that then be great if you could say, “Okay, we’ve found evidence of life, now we want to keep the life meter, keep searching for more and more complexity,” until you actually find living cells. And you can get those new living cells and then you could bring them back to earth or you could try and sequence them. You could see that they have different DNA and proteins.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:48)
Go along the gradient of the life meter.
Lee Cronin
(00:43:50)
Exactly.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:50)
How would you build a life meter? Let’s say we’re together, starting new-
Lee Cronin
(00:43:50)
Just a mass spectrometer.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:56)
… new company, launching a life-
Lee Cronin
(00:43:56)
Mass spectrometer would be the first way of doing it. Just take-
Lex Fridman
(00:43:59)
No, no, no, but that’s one of the major components of it. But I’m talking about-
Lee Cronin
(00:44:03)
I would-
Lex Fridman
(00:44:04)
… if it’s a device and branding, logo we got to talk about-
Lee Cronin
(00:44:04)
All right.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:08)
… that’s later. But what’s the input and what’s the… How do you get to the metered output?
Lee Cronin
(00:44:15)
So I would take a… So my life meter, our life meter. There you go.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:21)
Oh, thank you.
Lee Cronin
(00:44:21)
Yeah, you’re welcome, would have both infrared and mass spec. It would have two ports so it could shine a light. And so, what it would do is you would have a vacuum chamber and you would have an electrostatic analyzer, and you’d have a monochromator to producing infrared. You’d add the sum. So you’d take a scoop of the sample, put it in the life meter, it would then add a solvent or heat up the sample so some volatiles come off. The volatiles would then be put into the mass… into electrostatic trap, and you’d weigh the molecules and fragment them. Alternatively, you’d shine infrared light on them and you count number of bands. But you’d have to, in that case, do some separation, because you want to separate… And so, in mass spec, it’s really nice and convenient, because you can separate electrostatically, but you need to have that.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:12)
Can you do it in real time?
Lee Cronin
(00:45:13)
Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much, yeah. So let’s go all the way back. Okay, we’re really going to get this-
Lex Fridman
(00:45:13)
Let’s go.
Lee Cronin
(00:45:18)
… Lex’s life… Lex and Lee’s life meter.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:20)
No, I like Lex and Lee. It’s a good ring to it.
Lee Cronin
(00:45:25)
All right. So you have a vacuum chamber, you have a little nose. The nose would have some, a packing material. So you would take your sample, add it onto the nose, add a solvent or a gas. It would then be sucked up the nose and that would be separated, using what we call chromatography. And then as each band comes off the nose, we’ll then do mass spec and infrared. And in the case of the infrared, count the number of bands, in the case of mass spec, count the number of fragments and weigh it.

(00:45:56)
And then the further up in molecular weight range for the mass spec, and the number of bands, you go up and up and up from the dead, interesting, interesting, over the threshold, oh my gosh, earth life, and then right up to the batshit crazy, this is definitely alien intelligence that’s made this life, right? You could almost go all the way there. Same in the infrared. And pretty simple.

(00:46:18)
The thing that is really problematical is that for many years, decades, what people have done, and I can’t blame them, is they’ve rather, they’ve been obsessing about small biomarkers that we find on earth, amino acids, like single amino acids or evidence of small molecules and these things, and looking for those while I’m looking for complexity. The beautiful thing about this is you can look for complexity without earth chemistry bias or earth biology bias. So assembly theory is just a way of saying, hey, complexity in abundance is evidence of selection. That’s how our universal life meter will work.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:59)
Complexity in abundance is evidence of selection. Okay. So let’s apply our life meter to earth. If we were just to apply assembly index measurements to earth, what kind of stuff are going to get? What’s impressive about-
Lee Cronin
(00:46:59)
So-
Lex Fridman
(00:47:26)
… some of the complexity on earth?
Lee Cronin
(00:47:28)
… So we did this a few years ago when I was trying to convince NASA and colleagues that this technique could work. And honestly, it’s so funny, because everyone’s like, “No, it ain’t going to work.” And it was just like, because the chemists were saying, “Of course there are complicated molecules out there you can detect that just form randomly.” And I was like, “Really?” That was like, it’s a bit like, I don’t know, someone saying, “Of course, Darwin’s textbook was just written randomly by some monkeys and a typewriter.” Just for me, it was like, “Really?” And I’ve pushed a lot on the chemists now. And I think most of them are on board, but not totally. I really had some big arguments, but the copy number caught there. Because I think I confused the chemists by saying one-off. And then when I made clear about the copy number, I think that made it a little bit easier.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:16)
Just to clarify, a chemist might say that, of course out there, outside of earth there’s complex molecules?
Lee Cronin
(00:48:24)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:24)
Okay. And then you’re saying, “Wait a minute, that’s like saying, ‘Of course there’s aliens out there.'” Like you-
Lee Cronin
(00:48:31)
Yeah, exactly that.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:32)
Okay.
Lee Cronin
(00:48:32)
Exactly.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:34)
You clarify that, that’s actually a very interesting question and we should be looking for complex molecules of which the copy number is two or greater.
Lee Cronin
(00:48:45)
Yeah, exactly. So on earth, so coming back to earth, what we did is we took a whole bunch of samples and we were running prebiotic chemistry experiments in the lab. We took various inorganic minerals and extracted them, look at the volatile. Because there’s a special way of treating minerals and polymers in assembly theory. In this, in our life machine, we’re looking at molecules. We don’t care about polymers, because they don’t, they’re not volatile. You can’t hold them. How can you make… If you can’t discern that they’re identical, then it’s very difficult for you to work out if this, undergone selection or they’re just a random mess.

(00:49:26)
Same with some minerals, but we can come back to that. So basically what you do, we’ve got a whole loads of samples, inorganic ones, we got a load of, we got Scotch whiskey and also got-
Lex Fridman
(00:49:36)
Nice.
Lee Cronin
(00:49:36)
… took a odd bag, which is one of my favorite whiskeys, which is very peaty. And another-
Lex Fridman
(00:49:41)
What’s peaty mean?
Lee Cronin
(00:49:42)
It is like… So the way that in Scotland, in Isla, which is a little island, the scotch, the whiskey is let to mature in barrels. It’s said that the peat, the complex molecules in the peat find their way through into the whiskey, and that’s what gives it this intense brown color and really complex flavor. It’s literally molecular complexity that does that. And so, vodka’s the complete opposite. It’s just pure, right?-
Lex Fridman
(00:50:16)
So the better the whiskey, the higher the assembly index, the higher the assembly index, the better the whiskey.
Lee Cronin
(00:50:20)
I mean, I really love deep, peaty Scottish whiskeys. Near my house, there is one of the lowland distilleries, called Glengoyne. It’s still beautiful whiskey but not as complex. So for fun, I took some Glengoyne whiskey in our bag and put them into the mass spec and measured the assembly index. I also got E. coli. So the way we do it, take the E. coli, break the cell apart, take it all apart. And also got some beer. And people were ridiculing us saying, “Oh, beer is evidence of complexity.”

(00:50:53)
And one of the computational complexity people, it was just throwing, yeah… He’s very vigorous in his disagreement of assembly theory, was just saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Even beer is more complicated than human.” What he didn’t realize is that it’s not beer, per se, it’s taking the yeast extract, taking the extract, breaking the cells, extracting the molecules, and just looking at the profile of the molecules, see if there’s anything over the threshold. And we also put in a really complex molecule, Taxol.

(00:51:24)
So we took all of these, but also NASA gave us, I think, five samples, and they wouldn’t tell us what they are. They said, “No, we don’t believe you’re going to get this to work.” And they really gave us some super complex samples. And they gave us two fossils, one that was a million years old and one was at 10,000 years old, something from Antarctica, seabed. They gave us some Murchison and meteorite, and a few others. Put them through the system. So we took all the samples, treat them all identically, put them into mass spec, fragmented them, counted.

(00:51:56)
And in this case, implicit in the measurement was we, in mass spec, you only detect peaks when you’ve got more than, say, let’s say 10,000 identical molecules. So the copy number’s already baked in, but wasn’t quantified, which is super important there. This was in the first paper. Because I was like, it’s abundant, of course.

(00:52:17)
And when you then took it all out, we found that the biological samples gave you molecules that had an assembly index greater than 15. And all the abiotic samples were less than 15. And then we took the NASA samples and we looked at the ones that were more than 15, less than 15, and we gave them back to NASA, and they’re like, “Oh, gosh. Yep, dead, living, dead, living. You got it.” And that’s what we found on earth.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:44)
That’s a success.
Lee Cronin
(00:52:45)
Yeah. Oh yeah, resounding success.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:48)
Can you just go back to the beer and the E. coli? So what’s the assembly index on those?
Lee Cronin
(00:52:54)
So what you were able to do is, the assembly index of… We found high assembly index molecules originating from the beer sample and the E. coli sample.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:08)
Yeast in the beer.

Evolution of life on Earth

Lee Cronin
(00:53:10)
I didn’t know which one was higher. We didn’t really do any detail there. Because now we are doing that. Because one of the things we’ve done, it’s a secret, but I can tell you. I think it’s-
Lex Fridman
(00:53:23)
Nobody’s listening.
Lee Cronin
(00:53:25)
… well, is that we’ve just mapped the tree of life using assembly theory, because everyone said, ” Oh, you can’t do anything from biology.” And what we’re able to do is, so I think there’s three, well, two ways of doing tree of life… Well, three ways actually.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:38)
What’s the tree of life?
Lee Cronin
(00:53:39)
So the tree of life is basically tracing back the history of life on earth, all the different species, going back who evolved from what. And it all goes all the way back to the first life forms, and they branch off. And you have plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, the fungi kingdom, and different branches all the way up. And the way this was classically done, and I’m no evolutionary biologist. The evolutionary biologists tell me every day, at least 10 times… I want to be one though. I like biology, it’s cool.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:12)
Yeah, it’s very cool.
Lee Cronin
(00:54:13)
But basically-
Lex Fridman
(00:54:14)
Evolutionary.
Lee Cronin
(00:54:16)
… What Darwin and Mendeleev, and all these people do is just, they draw pictures and they [inaudible 00:54:20] taxa. They were able to draw pictures and say, “Oh, these look like common classes.”
Lex Fridman
(00:54:26)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(00:54:26)
Then…
Lex Fridman
(00:54:29)
They’re artists really. They’re just…
Lee Cronin
(00:54:32)
They were able to find out a lot, right? And looking at vertebrates and vertebrates, Cambrian explosion and all this stuff. And then came the genomic revolution and suddenly, everyone used gene sequencing. And Craig Venter’s a good example. I think he’s gone around the world in his yacht, just picking up samples, looking for new species. Where he’s just found new species of life just from sequencing. It’s amazing. So you have taxonomy, you have sequencing, and then you can also do a little bit of molecular archeology, like measure the samples and form some inference.

(00:55:08)
What we did is we were able to fingerprint… So we took a load of random samples from all of biology and we used mass spectrometry. And what we did now is not just look for individual molecules, but we looked for coexisting molecules where they had to look at their joint assembly space. And we were able to cut them apart and undergo recursion in the mass spec and infer some relationships. And we’re able to recapitulate the tree of life using mass spectroscopy, no sequencing and no drawing.
Lex Fridman
(00:55:41)
All right. Can you try to say that again, with a little more detail? So recreating, what does it take to recreate the tree of life? What does the reverse engineering process look like here?
Lee Cronin
(00:55:52)
So what you do is you take an unknown sample, you bung it into the mass spec, you get… Because this comes from what you’re asking, what do you see in E. coli?
Lex Fridman
(00:56:00)
Mm-hmm.
Lee Cronin
(00:56:00)
And so, in E. coli, you don’t just see, it’s not the most sophisticated cells on earth make the most sophisticated molecules. It is the coexistence of lots of complex molecules above a threshold. And so, what we realized is you could fingerprint different life forms. So fungi make really complicated molecules. Why? Because they can’t move. They have to make everything onsite.

(00:56:24)
Whereas, some animals are lazy, they can just go eat the fungi, and they don’t need to make very much. And so, what you do is you look at the, so you take, I don’t know, the fingerprint, maybe the top number of high molecular weight molecules you find in the sample, you fragment them to get their assembly indices, and then what you can do is you can infer common origins of molecules. You can do a molecular… When the reverse engineering of the assembly space, you can infer common roots and look at what’s called the joint assembly space.

(00:57:02)
But let’s translate that into the experiment. Take a sample, bung it in the mass spec, take the top, say, 10 molecules, fragment them, and that gives you one fingerprint. Then you do it for another sample, you get another fingerprint. Now the question is you say, “Hey, are these samples the same or different?” And that’s what we’ve been able to do and by basically looking at the assembly space that these molecules create. Without any knowledge of assembly theory, you are unable to do it. With a knowledge of assembly theory, you can reconstruct the tree.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:35)
How does knowing if they’re the same or different give you the tree?
Lee Cronin
(00:57:38)
Let’s go to two leaves on different branches on the tree, right? What you can do, by counting the number of differences, you can estimate how far away their origin was.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:48)
Got it.
Lee Cronin
(00:57:49)
And that’s what we do, and it just works. But when we realized you could even use assembly theory to recapitulate the tree of life with no gene sequencing, we were like, “Huh.”
Lex Fridman
(00:57:58)
So this is looking at samples that exist today in the world.
Lee Cronin
(00:58:01)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:01)
What about things that are no longer exist? I mean, the tree contains information about the past-
Lee Cronin
(00:58:08)
I would-
Lex Fridman
(00:58:09)
… some of it is gone.
Lee Cronin
(00:58:11)
Yeah, absolutely. I would love to get old fossil samples and apply assembly theory, mass spec, and see if we can find new forms of life that have, that are no longer amenable to gene sequencing, because the DNA is all gone. Because DNA and RNA’s quite unstable, but some of the more complex molecules might be there. They might give you a hint something new, or wouldn’t it be great if you-
Lex Fridman
(00:58:11)
I understand.
Lee Cronin
(00:58:33)
… if you find a sample that’s worth really persevering and doing the proper extraction to PCR and so on and then sequence it, and then put it together-
Lex Fridman
(00:58:46)
So when a thing dies, you can still get some information about its complexity.
Lee Cronin
(00:58:50)
Yeah. And it appears that you can do some dating. Now there are really good techniques. There’s radiocarbon dating, there is longer dating, going looking at radioactive minerals and so on. And you can also, in bone, you can look at… What happens after something dies, is you get what’s called racemization, where the chirality in the polymers basically changes and you get decomposition, and the deviation from the pure enantiomer to the mixture, you can have, it gives you a timescale on it, half-life, so you can date when it died. I want to use assembly theory to see if I can use it and date death and things, and trace the tree of life and also decomposition of molecules.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:45)
Do you think it’s possible?
Lee Cronin
(00:59:46)
Oh yeah, without a doubt. It may not be better than what… I was just at conference where there’s some brilliant people, looking isotope enrichment and looking at how life enriches isotopes, and they’re really sophisticated stuff that they’re doing. But I think there’s some fun to be had there, because it gives you another dimension of dating. How old is this molecule in terms of, or more importantly, how long ago was this molecule produced by life? More complex the molecule, the more prospect for decomposition, oxidation, reorganization, loss of chirality, and all that jazz.

(01:00:21)
But what life also does is it enriches. As you get older, the amount of carbon-13 in you goes up, because of the way the bonding is in carbon-13. So it has a slightly different strength, bond strength, than you. It’s called a kinetic isotope effect. So you can literally date how old you are or when you stop metabolizing. So you could date someone’s… how old they are, I think. I’m making this up, this might be right, but I think it’s roughly right. The amount of carbon-13 you have in you, you can estimate how old you are.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:56)
How old living humans are, or living organism?
Lee Cronin
(01:01:00)
Yeah, yeah. You could say, “Oh, this person is 10 years old and this person is 30 years old, because they’ve been metabolizing more carbon and they’ve accumulated it.” That’s the basic idea. It’s probably completely wrong timescale-

Response to criticism

Lex Fridman
(01:01:10)
Signatures of chemistry are fascinating. So you’ve been saying a lot of chemistry examples for assembly theory. What if we zoom out and look at a bigger scale of an object, like really complex objects, like humans or living organisms that are made up of millions or billions of other organisms, how do you try to apply assembly theory to that?
Lee Cronin
(01:01:38)
At the moment, we should be able to do this to morphology in cells. So we’re looking at cell surfaces, and really, I’m to trying to extend further. It’s just that we work so hard to get this paper out and people to start discussing the ideas, but it’s kind of funny, because I think the penny is falling on this. So yeah-
Lex Fridman
(01:02:03)
What does that even… What’s it mean for a penny to be-
Lee Cronin
(01:02:06)
I mean, no, the penny’s dropped, right? A lot of people were like, “It’s rubbish, it’s rubbish. You’ve insulted me. It’s wrong.” I mean, the paper got published on the 4th of October. It had 2.3 million engagements on Twitter and it’s been downloaded over a few hundred thousand times. And someone actually said to me, wrote to me and said, “This is an example of really bad writing and what not to do.” And I was like, if all of my papers got read this much, because that’s the objective, if I have a publishing a paper, I want people to read it. I want to write that badly again.
Lex Fridman
(01:02:37)
Yeah. I don’t know, what’s the deep insight here about the negativity in the space. I think it’s probably the immune system of the scientific community, making sure that there’s no bullshit that gets published and that it can overfy, it can do a lot of damage. It can shut down conversations in a way that’s not productive.
Lee Cronin
(01:02:54)
And I go back, I mean, I’ll answer your question about the hierarchy in assembly, but let’s go back to the perception people saying the paper was badly written. I mean, of course we could improve it. We could always improve the clarity.
Lex Fridman
(01:03:04)
Let’s go there before we go to the hierarchy.
Lee Cronin
(01:03:08)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:03:08)
It has been criticized quite a bit, the paper. What has been some criticism that you’ve found most powerful, that you can understand and can you explain it?
Lee Cronin
(01:03:23)
Yes. The most exciting criticism came from the evolutionary biologist telling me that he thought that origin of life was a solved problem. And I was like, “Whoa, we’re really onto something, because it’s clearly not.” And when you poked them on that they just said, “No. You you don’t understand evolution.” And I said, “No, no, I don’t think you understand that evolution had to occur before biology and there’s a gap.” That was really for me, that misunderstanding, and that did cause an immune response, which was really interesting.

(01:03:56)
The second thing was the fact that physicists, the physicists were actually really polite, really nice about it. But they just said, “Huh, we’re not really sure about the initial conditions thing. But this is a really big debate that we should certainly get into, because the emergence of life was not encoded in the initial conditions of the universe.” And I think assembly theory shows why it can’t be. I’ll say that-
Lex Fridman
(01:04:23)
Okay. Sure. If you could say that again.
Lee Cronin
(01:04:27)
The origin of, the emergence of life was not and cannot, in principle, be encoded in the initial conditions of the universe.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:35)
Just to clarify what you mean by life is what, high assembly index objects?
Lee Cronin
(01:04:39)
Yeah. And this goes back to your favorite subject.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:43)
What’s that?
Lee Cronin
(01:04:43)
Time.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:47)
Right. So why? What does time have to do with it?
Lee Cronin
(01:04:50)
I mean, probably we can come back to it later, but I think it might be, if we have time.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:56)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(01:04:56)
But I think that, I think I now understand how to explain how… Lots of people got angry with the assembly paper, but also, the ramifications of this is how time is fundamental in the universe and this notion of commentorial spaces. And there are so many layers on this, but you have to become an… I think you have to become an intuitionist mathematician and you have to abandon Platonic mathematics. And also, Platonic mathematics is left physics astray, but there’s a lot to unpack there. So we can go to the-
Lex Fridman
(01:05:34)
Platonic mathematic, okay. It’s okay, the evolutionary biologists criticized, because the origin of life is understood and not, it doesn’t require an explanation that involves physics.
Lee Cronin
(01:05:51)
Yeah. It-
Lex Fridman
(01:05:51)
That’s their statement.
Lee Cronin
(01:05:54)
Well, I mean, they said lots of confusing statements. Basically, I realized the evolutionary biology community that were vocal, and some of them were really rude, really spiteful, and needlessly so, right? Because look, I didn’t, people misunderstand publication as well. Some of the peoples have said, “How dare this be published in Nature. What a terrible journal.” And it really, and I watched, said to people, “Look, this is a brand new idea that’s not only potentially going to change the way we look at biology, it’s going to change the way we look at the universe.”

(01:06:36)
And everyone’s saying, “How dare, how dare you be so grandiose?” I’m like, “No, no, no. This is not hype. We’re not saying we’ve invented some, I don’t know, we’ve discovered a alien in a closet somewhere, just for hype. We genuinely mean this to genuinely have the impact or asked the question. And the way people jumped on that was a really bad precedent for young people who want to actually do something new.

(01:07:02)
Because this makes a bold claim, and the chances are that it’s not correct. But what I wanted to do is a couple of things. Is I wanted to make a bold claim that was precise and testable and correctable. Not another wooly information-in-biology argument, information-churring machine, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. A concrete series of statements that can be falsified and explored, and either the theory could be destroyed or built upon.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:32)
Well, what about the criticism of you’re just putting a bunch of sexy names on something that’s already obvious?
Lee Cronin
(01:07:42)
Yeah, that’s really good. So the assembly index of a molecule is not obvious. No one had measure it before. And no one has thought to quantify selection, complexity, and copy number before, in such a primitive, quantifiable way. I think the nice thing about this paper-
Lee Cronin
(01:08:00)
… quantifiable way. I think the nice thing about this paper, this paper is a tribute to all the people that understand that biology does something very interesting. Some people call it negentropy. Some people call it, think about organizational principles that lots of people were not shocked by the paper because they’d done it before. A lot of the arguments we got, some people said, “Oh, it’s rubbish. Oh, by the way, I had this idea 20 years before.” I was like, ” Which one?” Is it the rubbish part or the really revolutionary part.

(01:08:35)
So this kind of plucked two strings at once. It plucked the there is something interesting that biology are, we can see around this, but we haven’t quantified yet. And what this is, is the first stab at quantifying that, so the fact that people said “This is obvious.” But if it’s obvious, why have you not done it?
Lex Fridman
(01:08:58)
Sure. But there’s a few things to say there. One is, this is in part of philosophical framework because it’s not like you can apply this generally to any object in the universe. It’s very chemistry focused.
Lee Cronin
(01:09:15)
Yeah, well, I think you will be able to, we just haven’t got there robustly. So if we can say how can we… Let’s go up a level. So if we go up from level, let’s go up from molecules to cells because you would jump to people and I jump to emoticons and both are good and they will be assembly…
Lex Fridman
(01:09:30)
Lets stick with cells, yeah. Good point.
Lee Cronin
(01:09:34)
If we go from molecules to assemblies and let’s take acellular assembly. A nice thing about a cell is you can tell the difference between a eukaryote and a prokaryote, right? The organalles are specialized differently when then look at the cell surface and the cell surface has different glycosylation patterns and these cells will stick together. Now let’s go up a level in multicellular creatures you have cellular differentiation.

(01:09:57)
Now if you think about how embryos develop, you go all the way back, those cells undergo differentiation on a causal way that’s biomechanically a feedback between the genetics and biomechanics. I think we can use assembly theory to apply to tissue types. We can even apply it to different cell disease types. So that’s what we’re doing next. But we are trying to walk… The thing is, I’m trying to, I want a leap ahead to go, whoa, we apply it to culture. Clearly you can apply it to memes and culture. And we’ve also applied to assembly theory to CA’s and not as you think…
Lex Fridman
(01:09:57)
Cellular automaton, by the way.
Lee Cronin
(01:10:34)
Yeah, yeah. Cellular automaton, not just as you think. Different CA rules were invented by different people at different times. And one of my coworkers, very talented chap basically was like, “Oh, I can realize that different people had different ideas with different rules and they copied each other and made slightly different cellular automaton rules and looked at them online.” And so he was able to refer an assembly index and copy number of rule, whatever, doing this thing. But I digress.

(01:11:04)
But it does show you can apply it at a higher scale. So what do we need to do to apply assembly theory to things? We need to agree, there’s a common set of building blocks. So in a cell, well, in a multicellular creature, you need to look back in time. So there is the initial cell, which the creature is fertilized and then starts to grow and then there is cell differentiation. And you have to then make that causal chain both on those. So that requires development of the organism in time. Or if you look at the cell surfaces and the cell types, they’ve got different features on the cell walls and inside the cell. So we’re building up, but obviously I want a leap to things like emoticons, language, mathematical theorems.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:54)
But that’s a very large number of steps to get from a molecule to the human brain.
Lee Cronin
(01:12:01)
Yeah, and I think they are related, but in hierarchies of emergence. So you shouldn’t compare them. I mean the assembly index of a human brain, what does that even mean? Well, maybe we can look at the morphology of the human brain, say all human brains have these number of features in common. If they have those number… And then let’s look at a brain in a whale or a dolphin or a chimpanzee or a bird and say, “Okay, let’s look at the assembly indices and number of features in these.” And now the copy number is just the number of how many birds are there, how many chimpanzees are there, how many humans are there?
Lex Fridman
(01:12:35)
But then you have to discover for that the features that you would be looking for.
Lee Cronin
(01:12:39)
Yeah, and that means you need to have some idea of the anatomy.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:43)
But is there an automated way to discover features?
Lee Cronin
(01:12:46)
I guess so. And I think this is a good way to apply machine learning and image recognition just to basically characterize things.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:55)
To apply compression to it, to see what emerges, and then use the features used as part of the compression, as the measurement of… As the thing that is searched for when you’re measuring assembly index and copy number.
Lee Cronin
(01:13:09)
And the compression has to be, remember the assembly universe, which is you have to go from assembly possible to assembly contingent and that jump from… Because assembly possible all possible brains, all possible features all the time. But we know that on the tree of life and also on the lineage of life, going back to Luca, the human brain just didn’t spring into existence yesterday, it’s a long lineage of brains going all the way back. And so if we could do assembly theory to understand the development, not just in evolutionary history, but in biological development, as you grow, we are going to learn something more.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:45)
What would be amazing is if you can use assembly theory, this framework to show the increase in the assembly index associated with, I don’t know, cultures or pieces of text like language or images and so on and illustrate without knowing the data ahead of time, just kind like you did with NASA that you were able to demonstrate that it applies in those other contexts. I mean, and that probably wouldn’t at first, and you have to evolve the theory somehow. You have to change it, you have to expand it.
Lee Cronin
(01:14:21)
I think so.
Lex Fridman
(01:14:24)
I guess this is as a paper, a first step in saying, okay, “Can we create a general framework for measuring complexity of objects. For measuring life, the complexity of living organisms.”
Lee Cronin
(01:14:39)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:14:39)
That’s what this is reaching for.
Lee Cronin
(01:14:41)
That is the first step. And also to say, look, we have a way of quantifying selection and evolution in a fairly, not mundane, but a fairly mechanical way because before now… The ground truth for it was very subjective. Whereas here we’re talking about clean observables and there’s going to be layers on that. I mean, with collaborators right now, we already think we can do assembly theory on language. And not only that, wouldn’t it be great if we can figure out how under pressure language is going to involve and be more efficient? Because you’re going to want to transmit things.

(01:15:20)
And again, it’s not just about compression, it is about understanding how you can make the most of the architecture you’ve already built. And I think this is something beautiful that evolution does. We are reusing those architectures. We can’t just abandon our evolutionary history. And if you don’t want to abandon your evolutionary history and you know that evolution has been happening, then assembly theory works.

(01:15:44)
And I think that’s a key comment I want to make is that assembly theory is great for understanding when evolution has been used. The next jump is when we go to technology, because of course, if you take the M3 processor… I want to buy, I haven’t bought one yet. I can’t justify it, but I want it at some point. The M3 processor arguably is there’s quite a lot of features, a quite large number. The M2 came before it, then the M1 all the way back, you can apply assembly theory to microprocessor architecture. It doesn’t take a huge leap to see that.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:15)
I’m a Linux guy, by the way. So your examples go way over my head.
Lee Cronin
(01:16:18)
Yeah, well, whatever…
Lex Fridman
(01:16:19)
Is that a fruit company of some sort? I don’t even know. Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to ask about language. Like you could look at… How would that work? You could look at GPT-1, GPT-2, GPT-3, 3, 5, 4, and try to analyze the kind of language it produces. I mean, that’s almost trying to look at assembly index of intelligence systems.
Lee Cronin
(01:16:45)
Yeah, I mean I think the thing about large language models, and this is a whole hobbyhorse I have at the moment, is that obviously they’re all about… The evidence of evolution in the large language model comes from all the people that produced all the language. And that’s really interesting. And all the corrections in the Mechanical Turk, right?
Lex Fridman
(01:17:15)
Sure. But that’s part of the history, part of the memory of the system.
Lee Cronin
(01:17:20)
Exactly. So it would be really interesting to basically use an assembly based approach to making language in a hierarchy. My guess is that we might be able to build a new type of large language model that uses assembly theory, that it has more understanding of the past and how things were created. Basically the thing with LLMs is like, everything everywhere, all at once, splat and make the user happy. So there’s not much intelligence in the model. The model is how the human interacts with the model. But wouldn’t it be great if we could understand how to embed more intelligence in the system?
Lex Fridman
(01:18:03)
What do you mean by intelligence there? You seem to associate intelligence with history or memory?
Lee Cronin
(01:18:11)
Yeah. I think selection produces intelligence.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:16)
You’re almost implying that selection is intelligence. No.
Lee Cronin
(01:18:21)
Kind of, I would go out in limb and say that, but I think it’s a little bit more, human beings have the ability to abstract and they can break beyond selection. And this is… Darwinian selection, because a human being doesn’t have to basically do trial and error, but they can think about it and say, “Oh, that’s a bad idea, won’t do that.” And then technologies and so on.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:39)
So we escaped Darwinian evolution and now we’re onto some other kind of evolution, I guess? Higher level.
Lee Cronin
(01:18:46)
And assembly theory will measure that as well, right? Because it’s all a lineage.

Kolmogorov complexity

Lex Fridman
(01:18:50)
Okay. Another piece of criticism or by way of question is how is assembly theory or maybe assembly index different from Kolmogorov complexity? So for people who don’t know, a Kolmogorov complexity of an object is the length of a shortest computer program that produces the object as output.
Lee Cronin
(01:19:10)
Yeah, there seems to be a disconnect between the computational approach. So Kolmogorov measure requires a Turing machine, requires a computer, and that’s one thing. And the other thing is assembly theory is supposed to trace the process by which life evolution emerged, right? There’s a main thing there. There are lots of other layers.

(01:19:42)
So Kolmogorov complexity, you can approximate Kolmogorov complexity, but it’s not really telling you very much about the actual… It’s really telling you about your dataset, compression of your dataset.
Lex Fridman
(01:20:00)
Sure.
Lee Cronin
(01:20:00)
And so that doesn’t really help you identify… The turtle in this case is the computer. And so what assembly theory does is, I’m going to say, it’s a trigger warning for anyone listening who loves complexity theory. I think that we’re going to show that AIT is a very important subset of assembly theory because here’s what happens. I think that assembly theory allows us to go understand when were selections occurring. Selection produces factories and things, factories in the end produce computers, and then algorithmic information theory comes out of that. The frustration I’ve had with looking at life through this kind of information theory is it doesn’t take into account causation. So the main difference between assembly theory and all these complexity measures is there’s no causal chain. And I think that’s the main…
Lex Fridman
(01:21:00)
That’s the causal chain is at the core of assembly theory.
Lee Cronin
(01:21:06)
Exactly. And if you’ve got all your data in a computer memory, all the data’s the same. You can access it in the same way. You don’t care. You just compress it. And you either look at the program runtime or the shortest program. And that for me is absolutely not capturing what it is. What selection does.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:28)
But assembly theory looks at objects. It doesn’t have information about the object history. It’s going to try to infer that history by looking for the shortest history, right? The object doesn’t have a Wikipedia page that goes with it about its history.
Lee Cronin
(01:21:49)
I would say it does in a way, and it is fascinating to look at. So you’ve just got the object and you have no other information about the object. What assembly theory allows you to do with just with the object is to, and the word infer is correct, I agree with infer. You say, well, that’s not the history. But something really interesting comes from this.

(01:22:10)
The shortest path is inferred from the object. That is the worst case scenario if you have no machine to make it. So that tells you about the depth of that object in time. And so what assembly theory allows you to do is without considering any other circumstances, to say from this object, how deep is this object in time if we just treat the object as itself without any other constraints? And that’s super powerful because the shortest path then allows you to say, “Oh, this object wasn’t just created randomly. There was a process.” And so assembly theory is not meant to one up AIT or to ignore the factory. It’s just to say, “Hey, there was a factory and how big was that factory? And how deep in time is it?”
Lex Fridman
(01:23:01)
But it’s still computationally very difficult to compute that history, right? For complex objects?
Lee Cronin
(01:23:11)
It is. It becomes harder. But one of the thing that’s super nice is that it constrains your initial conditions, right?
Lex Fridman
(01:23:18)
Sure.
Lee Cronin
(01:23:18)
It constrains where you’re going to be. So if you take, say, imagine… So one of the things we’re doing right now is applying assembly theory to drug discovery. Now, what everyone’s doing right now is taking all the proteins and looking at the proteins and looking at molecules, doppler proteins, why not instead, look at the molecules that are involved in interacting with the receptors over time, rather than thinking about and use the molecules, evolve over time as a proxy for how the proteins evolved over time. And then use that to constrain your drug discovery process.

(01:23:51)
You flip the problem 180 and focus on the molecule evolution rather than the protein. And so you can guess in the future what might happen. So you rather than having to consider all possible molecules, you know where to focus. And that’s the same thing if you’re looking at in assembly spaces for an object where you don’t know the entire history, but you know that in the history of this object, it’s not going to have some other motif there that it doesn’t apply. It doesn’t appear in the past.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:22)
But just even for the drug discovery point you made, don’t you have to simulate all of chemistry to figure out how to come up with constraints?
Lee Cronin
(01:24:32)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:32)
And the molecules and the…
Lee Cronin
(01:24:34)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:35)
I don’t know enough about protein.
Lee Cronin
(01:24:36)
Well, this is another thing that I think causes… Because this paper goes across so many boundaries. So chemists have looked at this and said, “This is not correct reaction.” It’s like, no, it’s a graph.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:52)
Sure, there’s assembly index and shortest path examples here on chemistry.
Lee Cronin
(01:24:58)
Yeah, and what you do is you look at the minimal constraints on that graph. Of course it has some mapping to the synthesis, but actually you don’t have to know all of chemistry. You can build up the constraints space rather nicely. But this is just at the beginning, right? There are so many directions this could go in and as I said, it could all be wrong, but hopefully it’s less wrong.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:22)
What about the little criticism I saw of… By way of question, do you consider the different probabilities of each reaction in the chain so that there could be different… When you look at a chain of events that led up to the creation of an object, doesn’t it matter that some parts in the chain are less likely than others?
Lee Cronin
(01:25:46)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:48)
It doesn’t matter?
Lee Cronin
(01:25:48)
No, no. Well, let’s go back. So no, not less likely, but react… So, no. So let’s go back to what we’re looking at here. So the assembly index is the minimal path that could have created that object probabilistically. So imagine you have all your atoms in a plasma, you’ve got enough energy, there’s collisions. What is the quickest way you could zip out that molecule with no reaction constraints?
Lex Fridman
(01:26:12)
How do you define quickest there then?
Lee Cronin
(01:26:14)
It’s just basically walk on a random graph. So we make an assumption that basically the timescale for forming the bonds. So no, I don’t want to say that because then it’s going to have people getting obsessing about this point. And your criticism is a really good one. What we’re trying to say is this puts a lower bound on something. Of course, some reactions are less possible than others, but actually I don’t think chemical reactions exist.
Lex Fridman
(01:26:39)
Oh, boy. What does that mean? Why don’t chemical reactions exist?
Lee Cronin
(01:26:44)
I’m writing a paper right now that I keep being told I have to finish, and it’s called ‘The Origin of Chemical Reactions.’ And it merely says that reactivity exists as controlled by the laws of quantum mechanics. And reactions, chemists put names on reactions. So you can have, I don’t know, the Wittig reaction, which is by Wittig. You could have the Suzuki reaction, which is by Suzuki.

(01:27:09)
Now what are these reactions? So these reactions are constrained by the following. They’re constrained by the fact they’re on planet Earth, 1G, 298 Kelvin, 1 Bar. So these are constraints. They’re also constrained by the chemical composition of earth, oxygen availability, all this stuff. And that then allows us to focus in our chemistry. So when a chemist does a reaction, that’s a really nice compressed shorthand for constraint application, glass flask, pure reagent, temperature, pressure, boom, boom, boom, control, control control, control control.

(01:27:44)
So of course we have bond energies. So the bond energies are kind of intrinsic in a vacuum. So the bond energy, you have to have a bond. And so for assembly theory to work, you have to have a bond, which means that bond has to give the molecule a half life. So you’re probably going to find later on that some bonds are weaker and that you are going to miss in mass spectrum, when you look at the assembly of some molecules, you’re going to miscount the assembly of the molecule. It falls apart too quickly because the bonds just form. But you can solve that with looking at infrared.

(01:28:21)
So when people think about the probability, they’re kind of misunderstanding. Assembly theory says nothing about the chemistry because chemistry is chemistry and their constraints are put in by biology. There was no chemist on the origin of life unless you believe in the chemist in the sky… And it’s like Santa Claus, they had a lot of work to do, but chemical reactions do not exist and the constraints that allow chemical transformations to occur do exist.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:52)
Okay, okay. So it’s constraint. So there’s no chemical reactions. It’s all constraint application, which enables the emergence of… What’s a different word for chemical reaction?
Lee Cronin
(01:29:10)
Transformation?
Lex Fridman
(01:29:11)
Transformation.
Lee Cronin
(01:29:11)
Yeah, like a function. It’s a function, but no, but I love chemical reactions as a shorthand. And so the chemists don’t all go mad. I mean, of course chemical reactions exist on earth.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:20)
It’s a shorthand.
Lee Cronin
(01:29:21)
It’s a shorthand for these constraints.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:24)
So assuming all these constraints that we’ve been using for so long that we just assume that that’s what was the case in natural language conversation.
Lee Cronin
(01:29:30)
Exactly. The grammar of chemistry of course emerges in reactions and we can use them reliably, but I do not think the Wittig reaction is accessible on Venus.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:41)
Right, and this is useful to remember to frame it as constraint application is useful for when you zoom out to the bigger picture of the universe and looking at the chemistry of the universe and then starting to apply assembly theory. That’s interesting. That’s really interesting. But we’ve also pissed off the chemists now.
Lee Cronin
(01:30:01)
Oh, they’re pretty happy, but well, most of them.
Lex Fridman
(01:30:04)
No. Everybody deep down is happy, I think. They’re just sometimes feisty, that’s how they have fun.
Lee Cronin
(01:30:13)
Everyone is grumpy on some days when you challenge… The problem with this paper is… It’s almost like I went to a park, it’s like I used to do this occasionally when I was young. Go to a meeting and just find a way to offend everyone at the meeting simultaneously. Even the factions that don’t like each other, they’re all unified in the hatred of you just offending them. This paper, it feels like the person that went to the party and offended everyone simultaneously. So stop fighting with themselves and just focused on this paper.

Nature review process

Lex Fridman
(01:30:41)
Maybe just a little insider interesting information. What were the editors of Nature, what the reviews and so on, how difficult was that process because this is a pretty big paper.
Lee Cronin
(01:30:55)
So when we originally sent the paper, we sent the paper and the editor said that… This is quite a long process. We sent the paper and the editor gave us some feedback and said, “I don’t think it’s that interesting.” Or “It’s hard. It’s hard concept.” And the editor gave us some feedback and Sarah and I took a year to rewrite the paper.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:26)
Was the Nature of the feedback very specific on this part? This part? Or was it like, “What are you guys smoking? What kind of crack are you taking?”
Lee Cronin
(01:31:34)
Yeah, it was kind of the latter. What are you smoking.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:35)
Okay. But polite and there’s promise.
Lee Cronin
(01:31:41)
Yeah. Well the thing is the editor was really critical, but in a really professional way. And I mean for me, this was the way science should happen. So when it came back, we had too many equations in the paper. If you look at the pre-print, there’s just equations everywhere, like 23 equations. And when I said to Abhishek, who was the first author, we’ve got to remove all the equations, but my assembly equations staying in Abhishek was like, “No, we can’t.”

(01:32:05)
I said, “Well look, if we want to explain this to people, there’s a real challenge.” And so Sarah and I went through the, I think it was actually 160 versions of the paper, but basically we got to version 40 or something. We said, “Right, zero it start again.” So we wrote the whole paper again. We knew the entire…
Lex Fridman
(01:32:21)
Amazing.
Lee Cronin
(01:32:22)
And we just went bit by bit by bit and said, “What is it we want to say?” And then we sent the paper in and we expected it to be rejected and not even go to review. And then we got notification back, it had gone to review and we were like, “Oh my God, it’s so going to get rejected. How’s it going to get rejected?” Because the first assembly paper on the mass spec we sent to Nature went through six rounds of review and rejected. And by a chemist that just said, “I don’t believe you. You must be committing fraud.”

(01:32:54)
And long story, probably a boring story, but in this case it went out to review, the comments came back and the comments were incredibly, they were very deep comments from all the reviewers. But the nice thing was the reviewers were kind of very critical, but not dismissive. They were like, “Oh, really? Explain this, explain this, explain this, explain this.”
Lex Fridman
(01:32:54)
That’s great.
Lee Cronin
(01:33:26)
Are you sure it’s not Kolmogorov? Are you sure it’s not this? And we went through I think three rounds of review pretty quick and the editor went, yeah, it’s in.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:39)
But maybe you could just comment on the whole process. You’ve published some pretty huge papers on all kinds of topics within chemistry and beyond. Some of them have some little spice in them, a little spice of crazy like Tom Waits, says, “I like my Tom with a little drop of poison.” It’s not a mundane paper. So what’s it like psychologically to go through all this process to keep getting rejected, to get reviews from people that don’t get the paper or all that kind of stuff? Just from a question of a scientist, what is that like?
Lee Cronin
(01:34:19)
I mean this paper for me kind of, because this wasn’t the first time we tried to publish assembly theory at the highest level. The Nature communications paper on the mass spec, the idea went to Nature and got rejected, went through six rounds of review and got rejected. And I just was so confused when the chemist said, this can’t be possible. I do not believe you can measure complexity using mass spec. And also by the way, complex molecules can randomly form. And we’re like, “But look at the data. The data says…” And they said, “No, no. We don’t believe you.” And we went and I just wouldn’t give up. And the editor in the end was just like… Different editors actually. Right?
Lex Fridman
(01:35:10)
What’s behind that never giving up? When you’re sitting there 10 o’clock in the evening, there’s a melancholy feeling that comes over you and you’re like, “Okay, this is rejection number five.” Or it’s not rejection, but maybe it feels like a rejection because the comments are that you totally don’t get it. What gives you strength to keep going there?
Lee Cronin
(01:35:31)
I don’t know. I don’t normally get emotional about papers, but it is not about giving up because we want to get it published because we want the glory or anything. It’s just like, why don’t you understand? And so what I would just… Is try to be as rational as possible and say, yeah, you didn’t like it. Tell me why. And then…

(01:36:26)
Sorry, give me a second. Silly, never get emotional about papers normally, but I think what we do, you just compressed five years of angst from this.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:38)
So it’s been rough?
Lee Cronin
(01:36:40)
It’s not just rough. It’s like, it happened… I came up with the assembly equation remote from Sarah in Arizona and the people at SFI. I felt like I was a mad person. The guy depicted in A Beautiful Mind who was just like… Not the actual genius part, but just the gibberish, gibberish, gibberish.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:59)
Just the crazy part.
Lee Cronin
(01:37:02)
Because I kept writing expanded and I have no mathematical ability at all. And I was making these mathematical expansions where I kept seeing the same motif again. I was like, I think this is a copy number. The same string is coming again and again and again, I couldn’t do the math. And then I realized the copy number fell out of the equation and everything collapsed down. I was like, oh, that works kind of.

(01:37:23)
So we submitted the paper and then when it was almost accepted, the mass spec one and it was astrobiologists said, great, a mass spectroscopist said great. And the chemist went nonsense, biggest pile of nonsense ever. Fraud. And I was like, “But why fraud?” And they just said, “Just because.” I was like well… I could not convince the editor in this case. The editor was just so pissed off. They see it as a, you’re wasting my time. And I would not give up. I wrote, I went and dissected all the parts. And I think, although, I mean I got upset about, it was kind of embarrassing actually, but I guess…
Lex Fridman
(01:38:05)
I bet it was beautiful.
Lee Cronin
(01:38:08)
But it was just trying to understand why they didn’t like it. So part of me was really devastated and a part of me was super excited because I’m like, “Huh, they can’t tell me why I’m wrong.” And this kind of goes back to when I was at school, I was in a kind of learning difficulties class, and I kept going to the teacher and saying, “What do I do today to prove I’m smart?” And they were like, “Nothing, you can’t.” I was like, “Give me a job, give me something to do, give me a job to do. Something to do.” And I kind of felt like that a bit when I was arguing with the, and not arguing. There was no ad hominem. I wasn’t telling the editor they were idiots or anything like this or the reviewers. I kept it strictly factual.

(01:38:51)
And all I did is I just kept knocking it down bit by bit, by bit, by bit by bit. It was ultimately rejected and it got published elsewhere. And then the actual experimental data, so in this paper, the experimental justification was already published. So when we did this one and we went through the versions and then we sent it in and in the end it just got accepted. We were like, well, that’s kind of cool, right? This is kind of like some days…

(01:39:21)
Sorry, the first author was like, “I can’t believe it got accepted.” I was like, “Nor am I, but it’s great. It’s good.” And then when the paper was published, I was not expecting the backlash. I was expecting computational. Well, no, actually I was just expecting one person who’d been trolling me for a while about it just to carry on trolling, but I didn’t expect the backlash. And then I wrote to the editor and apologized and the editor was like, “What are you apologizing for? It was a great paper. Of course it’s going to get backlash. You said some controversial stuff, but it’s awesome.”
Lex Fridman
(01:39:56)
Well, I think it’s a beautiful story of perseverance and the backlash is just a negative word for discourse, which I think is beautiful. That’s the science.
Lee Cronin
(01:40:08)
I think, as I said when it got accepted and people were saying, we’re kind of hacking on it. And I was like, papers are not gold medals. The reason I wanted to publish that paper in Nature is because it says, “Hey, there’s something before biological evolution.” You have to have that, if you’re not a creationist, by the way, this is an approach. First time someone has put a concrete mechanism, or sorry, a concrete quantification and what comes next you are pushing on is a mechanism. And that’s what we need to get to is an auto catalytic sets, self-replicating molecules, some other features that come in.

(01:40:48)
And the fact that this paper has been so discussed, for me is a dream come true, it doesn’t get better than that. If you can’t accept a few people hating it… And the nice thing is, the thing that really makes me happy is that no one has attacked the actual physical content.

(01:41:10)
You can measure the assembly index, you can measure selection now. So either that’s right or it’s… Well, either that’s helpful or unhelpful. If it’s unhelpful, this paper will sink down and no one will use it again. If it’s helpful, it’ll help people scaffold on it and we’ll start to converge for a new paradigm. So I think that that’s the thing that I wanted to see my colleagues, authors, collaborators and people were like, you’ve just published this paper. You’re a chemist. Why have you done this? Who are you to be doing evolutionary theory? Well, I don’t know. I mean, sorry, did I need to…
Lex Fridman
(01:41:48)
Who is anyone to do anything? Well, I’m glad you did. Let me just before coming back to Origin of Life and these kinds of questions, you mentioned learning difficulties. I didn’t know about this. So what was it like?
Lee Cronin
(01:42:00)
I wasn’t very good at school, right.
Lee Cronin
(01:42:00)
I wasn’t very good at school, right?
Lex Fridman
(01:42:04)
This is when you were very young?
Lee Cronin
(01:42:06)
Yeah. But in primary school, my handwriting was really poor and apparently I couldn’t read and my mathematics was very poor. So they just said, “This is a problem.” They identified it. My parents at the time, were confused because I was busy taking things apart, buying electronic junk from the shop, trying to build computers and things. And then once I got out of… when I think, about the major transition in my stupidity, everyone thought I wasn’t that stupid when I was… Basically, everyone thought I was faking. I liked stuff and I was faking wanting to be it. So I always want to be a scientist. So five, six, seven years old, I’d be a scientist, take things apart, and everyone’s like, “Yeah, this guy wants to be a scientist, but he’s an idiot.” So everyone was really confused, I think, at first, that I wasn’t smarter than I was claiming to be.

(01:42:58)
And then I just basically didn’t do well in any of the tests, and I went down and down and down and down and then I was like, “Huh, this is really embarrassing. I really like maths and everyone says I can’t do it. I really like physics and chemistry and science and people say you can’t read and write.” And so I found myself in a learning difficulties class at the end of primary school and the beginning of secondary school. In the UK, secondary school is 11, 12 years old. And I remember being put in the remedial class. And the remedial class was basically full of three types of people. There were people quite violent and there were people who couldn’t speak English and there were people that really had learning difficulties. So the one thing I can objectively remember was… I could read. I liked reading. I read a lot. But something in me, I’m a bit of a rebel. I refused to read what I was told to read and I found it difficult to read individual words in the way they were told.

(01:44:24)
But anyway, I got caught one day teaching someone else to read and they said, “Okay, we don’t understand this.” I’d always known I wanted to be a scientist, but I didn’t really know what that meant and I realized you had to go to university and I thought, “I can just go to university. They take curious people.” “No, no, no need to have these. You have to be able to enter these exams to get this grade point average, and the fact is, the exams you’ve been entered into, you are just going to get C, D or E.” You can’t even get A, B or C. These are the UK GCSEs. I was like, ” Oh, shit,” and I said, “Can you just put me into the higher exams?” They said, “No, no, you’re going to fail. There’s no chance.” So my father intervened and said, “Just let him go in the exams,” and they said, “He’s definitely going to fail. It’s a waste of time, waste of money,” and he said, “What if we paid?” So they said, “Okay,” so you didn’t actually have to pay. You only had to pay if I failed.

(01:45:23)
So I took the exams and passed them, fortunately. I didn’t get the top grades, but I got into A Levels. But then that also limited what I could do at A Levels. I wasn’t allowed to do A Level maths.
Lex Fridman
(01:45:35)
What do you mean you weren’t allowed to?
Lee Cronin
(01:45:36)
Because I had such a bad math grade from my GCSE, I only had a C. But they wouldn’t let me go into the ABC for maths because of some coursework requirement back then so the top grade I could have got was a C. So C, D or E. So I got a C and they let me do AS Level maths, which is this half intermediate and get to go to university. But I liked chemistry. I had a good chemistry teacher so in the end I got to university to do chemistry.
Lex Fridman
(01:46:01)
So through that process, I think for kids in that situation, it’s easy to start believing that you’re not… How do I put it… That you’re stupid, and basically give up, that you’re just not good at math, you’re not good at school. So this is, by way of advice for people, for interesting people, for interesting young kids right now, experiencing the same thing. Where was the place? What was the source of you not giving up there?
Lee Cronin
(01:46:33)
I have no idea. Other than… I really liked not understanding stuff. For me, when I not understand something… I feel like I don’t understand anything. But now, but back then, I remember when I was like… I don’t know, I tried to build a laser when I was eight and I thought, “How hard could it be?” And basically, I was going to build a CO2 laser and I was like, “Right, I think I need some partially coated mirrors. I need some carbon dioxide and I need a high voltage.” And I was so stupid. I was so embarrassed. T make enough CO2, I actually set a fire and tried to filter the flame.
Lex Fridman
(01:47:30)
Oh, nice. That’s an idea.
Lee Cronin
(01:47:30)
Just to collect enough CO2 and it completely failed. And I burnt half the garage down. So my parents were not very happy about that. So that was one thing. I really liked first principle thinking. So I remember being super curious and being determined to find answers. And so when people do give advice about this, why ask for advice about this? I don’t really have that much advice other than don’t give up. And one of the things I try to do as a chemistry professor in my group is I hire people that I think, if they’re persistent enough, who am I to deny them the chance? Because people gave me a chance and I was able to do stuff.
Lex Fridman
(01:48:18)
Do you believe in yourself essentially?
Lee Cronin
(01:48:22)
So I love being around smart people and I love confusing smart people. And when I’m confusing smart people, not by stealing their wallets and hiding it somewhere, but if I can confuse smart people, that is the one piece of hope that I might be doing something interesting.
Lex Fridman
(01:48:37)
Wow, that’s quite brilliant. As a gradient to optimize. Hang out with smart people and confuse them. And the more confusing it is, the more there’s something there.
Lee Cronin
(01:48:47)
And as long as they’re not telling you just a complete idiot and they give you different reasons. And everyone, because with assembly theory and people said, “Oh, it’s wrong.” And I was like, “Why?” And no one could give me a consistent reason. They said, “Oh, because it’s been done before or it’s just [inaudible 01:49:04] or it’s just there, that and the other. So I think the thing that I like to do is, and in academia it’s hard because people are critical. But the criticism, although I got upset about it earlier, which is silly, but not silly because obviously it’s hard work being on your own or with a team spatially separated during lockdown and try to keep everyone on board and have some faith. I always wanted to have a new idea. And so I like a new idea and I want to nurture it as long as possible. And if someone can give me actionable criticism, that’s why I think I was trying to say earlier when I was stuck for words, give me actionable criticism.

(01:49:51)
“It’s wrong.” “Okay, why is it wrong?” Say, “Oh, your equation’s incorrect for this or your method is wrong.” So what I try and do is get enough criticism from people to then triangulate and go back. And I’ve been very fortunate in my life that I’ve got great colleagues, great collaborators, funders, mentors, and people that will take the time to say, “You are wrong because.” And then what I have to do is integrate the wrongness and go, “Oh, cool, maybe I can fix that.” And I think criticism is really good. People have a go at me because I’m really critical. But I’m not criticizing you as a person. I’m just criticizing the idea and trying to make it better and say, “What about this?”

(01:50:34)
And sometimes my filters are truncated in some ways. I’m just like, “That’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong. Why’d you do this?” And people are like, “Oh my God, you just told me, you destroyed my life’s work.” I’m like, “Relax. No.” I’m just like, “Let’s make it better.” And I think that we don’t do that enough because we are either personally critical, which isn’t helpful or we don’t give any criticism at all because we’re too scared.
Lex Fridman
(01:51:03)
Yeah, I’ve seen you be pretty aggressively critical but every time I’ve seen, it’s the idea, not the person.

Time and free will

Lee Cronin
(01:51:15)
I’m sure I make mistakes on that.I argue lots with Sara and she’s shocked. I’ve argued with Joscha, Joscha Bach, in the past and he is like, “You’re just making that up.” And I’m like, “No, not quite. But kind of.” But I had a big argument with Sara about time and she’s like, “No, time doesn’t exist.” I’m like, “No, no, time does exist.” And as she realized that her conception of assembly theory and my conception of assembly theory was the same thing, necessitated us to abandon the fact that time is eternal, to actually really fundamentally question how the universe produces combinatorial novelty.
Lex Fridman
(01:51:59)
So time is fundamental for assembly theory? I’m just trying to figure out where you and Sara converged.
Lee Cronin
(01:52:06)
I think assembly theory is fine in this time right now but I think it helps us understand that something interesting is going on. I’ve been really inspired by a guy called Nick Gisin. I’m going to butcher his argument but I love his argument a lot. So I hope he forgives me if he hears about it. But basically if you want free will, time has to be fundamental. And if you want time to be fundamental, you have to give up on platonic mathematics and you have to use intuition. By the way, and again I’m going to butcher this, but basically Hilbert said that infinite numbers are allowed. And I think it was Brouwer who said, “No, you can’t. All numbers are finite.” So let’s go back a step because it was like people going to say, assembly theory seems to explain that large combinatorial space allows you to produce things like life and technology. And that large combinatorial space is so big it’s not even accessible to a Sean Carroll, David Deutsch multiverse that physicists saying that all of the universe already exists in time is probably, provably, that’s a strong word, not correct.

(01:53:43)
That we are going to know that the universe as it stands, the present, the way the present builds the future is so big, the universe can’t ever contain the future. And this is a really interesting thing. I think Max Tegmark has this mathematical universe. He says the universe is like a block universe, and I apologize to Max if I’m getting it wrong, but people think you can just move. You have the stat, you have the initial conditions, and you can run the universe right to the end and go backwards and forwards in that universe. That is not correct.
Lex Fridman
(01:54:17)
Let me load that in. The universe is not big enough to contain the future.
Lee Cronin
(01:54:21)
Yeah. That’s why. That’s it.
Lex Fridman
(01:54:24)
That’s a beautiful way of saying that time is fundamental.
Lee Cronin
(01:54:26)
Yes. And this is why the law of the excluded middle, something is true or false, only works in the past. Is it going to snow in New York next week or in Austin? You might, in Austin, say probably not. In New York, you might say, yeah. If you go forward to next week and say, “Did it snow in New York last week? True or false?” You can answer that question. The fact that the law of the excluded middle cannot apply to the future explains why time is fundamental.
Lex Fridman
(01:55:01)
That’s a good example, intuitive example, but it’s possible that we might be able to predict whether it’s going to snow if we had the perfect information.
Lee Cronin
(01:55:10)
I think…
Lex Fridman
(01:55:11)
You’re saying it not.
Lee Cronin
(01:55:13)
Impossible. Impossible. So here’s why. I’ll make a really quick argument and this argument isn’t mine. It’s Nick’s and a few other people.
Lex Fridman
(01:55:23)
Can you explain his view on time being fundamental?
Lee Cronin
(01:55:28)
Yeah. So I’ll give my view, which resonates with his, but basically it’s very simple actually. It would say your ability to design and do an experiment is exercising free will. So he used that thought process. I never really thought about it that way, and that you actively make decisions. I used to think that free will was a consequence of just selection but I’m understanding that human free will is something really interesting. And he very much inspired me. But I think that what Sara Walker said that inspired me as well, these will converge, is that I think that the universe, and the universe is very big, huge, but actually the place that is largest in the universe right now, the largest place in the universe, is earth.
Lex Fridman
(01:56:20)
Yeah, I’ve seen you say that. And boy, does that… That’s an interesting one to process. What do you mean by that earth is the biggest place in the universe?
Lee Cronin
(01:56:31)
Because we have this combinatorial scaffolding going all the way back from LUCA. So you’ve got cells that can self-replicate and then you go all the way to terraforming the earth. You’ve got all these architectures, the amount of selection that’s going on, biological selection, just to be clear, biological evolution, and then have multicellularity then animals and abstraction. And with abstraction, there was another kick because you can then build architectures and computers and cultures and language and these things are the biggest things that exist in the universe because we can just build architectures that could naturally arise anywhere and the further that distance goes in time, and it’s gigantic.
Lex Fridman
(01:57:15)
From a complexity perspective.
Lee Cronin
(01:57:17)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:57:17)
Okay, wait a minute. But I know you’re being poetic, but how do you know there’s not other earth-like… How do you know? You’re basically saying earth is really special. It’s awesome stuff as far as we look out, there’s nothing like it going on. But how do you know there’s not nearly infinite number of places where cool stuff like this is going on?
Lee Cronin
(01:57:40)
I agree and I would say, I’ll say again, that earth is the most gigantic thing we know in the universe combinatorially we know.
Lex Fridman
(01:57:49)
We know. Yeah.

Communication with aliens

Lee Cronin
(01:57:50)
Now, I guess this is just purely a guess. I have no data other than hope. Maybe not hope, maybe… No, I have some data. That every star in the sky probably has planets and life is probably emerging on these planets. But the amount of contingency that is associated with life, is I think the combinatorial space associated with these planets is so different. Our causal cones are never going to overlap or not easily. And this is the thing that makes me sad about alien life. It’s why we have to create alien life in the lab as quickly as possible because I don’t know if we are going to be able to be able to build architectures that will intersect with alien intelligence architectures.
Lex Fridman
(01:58:42)
Intersect, you don’t mean in time or space?
Lee Cronin
(01:58:46)
Time and the ability to communicate.
Lex Fridman
(01:58:48)
The ability to communicate.
Lee Cronin
(01:58:49)
Yeah. My biggest fear in a way is that life is everywhere but we become infinitely more lonely because of our scaffolding in that combinatorial space. Because it’s so big.
Lex Fridman
(01:59:00)
So you’re saying the constraints created by the environment that led to the factory of Darwinian evolution are just this little tiny cone in a nearly infinite combinatorial space.
Lee Cronin
(01:59:14)
Exactly.
Lex Fridman
(01:59:14)
So there’s other cones like it. Why can’t we communicate with other… Just because we can’t create it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the creation, right? Sorry, detect the creation.
Lee Cronin
(01:59:30)
I truly don’t know but it’s an excuse for me to ask for people to give me money to make a planet simulator.
Lex Fridman
(01:59:36)
Yeah, right.
Lee Cronin
(01:59:36)
If I can make…
Lex Fridman
(01:59:38)
With a different [crosstalk 01:59:40]
Lee Cronin
(01:59:39)
It’s like another shameless say, it’s like, “Give me money. I need money.”
Lex Fridman
(01:59:42)
This was all long plug for a planet simulator. Hey, I won’t be the first in line to do that.
Lee Cronin
(01:59:50)
My rick garage has run out of room.
Lex Fridman
(01:59:53)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(01:59:54)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:59:54)
And this planet simulator, you mean a different planet or different sets of environments and pressures?
Lee Cronin
(02:00:01)
Exactly. If we could basically recreate the selection before biology as we know it, that gives rise to a different biology, we should be able to put the constraints on where to look in the universe. So here’s the thing. Here’s my dream. My dream is that by creating life in the lab based upon constraints we understand, let’s go for Venus type life or earth type life or something again, do an Earth 2.0. Screw it, let’s do an Earth 2.0. An Earth 2.0 has a different genetic alphabet. Fine, that’s fine. Different protein alphabet, fine. Have cells and evolution, all that stuff. We will then be able to say, “Okay, life is a more general phenomena. Selection is more general than what we think is the chemical constraints on life.” And we can point at James Webb and other telescopes at other planets that we are in that zone we are most likely to combinatorially overlap with because, so there’s chemistry…
Lex Fridman
(02:01:01)
You’re looking for some overlap.
Lee Cronin
(02:01:02)
And then we can then basically shine light on them literally and look at light coming back and apply advanced assembly theory to general theory of language that we’ll get and say, “Huh, in that signal, it looks random but there’s a copy number. Oh, this random set of things that shouldn’t be that looks like a true random number generator has structure as not [inaudible 02:01:32], an IT type structure, but evolutionary structure given by assembly theory,” and we start to… But I would say that because I’m a shameless assembly theorist.
Lex Fridman
(02:01:42)
Yeah, it just feels like the cone, I might be misusing the word cone here but the width of the cone is growing faster, is growing really fast to where eventually all the cones overlap even in a very, very, very large combinatorial space. But then again, if you’re saying the universe is also growing very quickly in terms of possibilities…
Lee Cronin
(02:02:14)
I hope that as we build abstractions, one idea is that as we go to intelligence, intelligence allows us to look at the regularities around us in the universe. And that gives us some common grounding to discuss with aliens. And you might be right that we will overlap there. Even though we have completely different chemistry, literally completely different chemistry, that we will be able to pass information from one another. But it’s not a given. And I have to try and divorce hope and emotion away from what I can logically justify.
Lex Fridman
(02:03:02)
But it’s just hard to intuit a world, a universe where there’s nearly infinite complexity objects and they somehow can’t detect each other.
Lee Cronin
(02:03:13)
The universe is expanding. But the nice thing is I would say, I would look, you see, I think Carl Sagan did the wrong thing. Not the wrong thing. He flicked the Voyager program and the Pale Blue Dot and said, “Look how big the universe is.” I would’ve done it the other way around and said, “Look at the Voyager probe that came from the planet earth that came from LUCA. Look at how big earth is.”
Lex Fridman
(02:03:31)
Then it produced that.
Lee Cronin
(02:03:32)
It produced that.
Lex Fridman
(02:03:34)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(02:03:35)
And that I think is completely amazing. And then that should allow people on earth to think about, “Probably we should try and get causal chains off Earth onto Mars, onto the moon, wherever. Whether it’s human life or martian life that we create, it doesn’t matter. But I think this combinatorial space tells us something very important about the universe and that I realized in assembly theory that the universe is too big to contain itself. Now coming back, I want to change your mind about time because I’m guessing that your time is just a coordinate. So I’m going to change…
Lex Fridman
(02:03:35)
I’m guessing you’re one of those.
Lee Cronin
(02:04:20)
One of those. I’m change my mind in real time or at least attempt.
Lex Fridman
(02:04:22)
Oh, in real time. There you go. I already got the tattoo. So this is going to be embarrassing if you change my mind.
Lee Cronin
(02:04:27)
But you can just add an arrow of time onto it, right?
Lex Fridman
(02:04:27)
Yeah, true. Just modify it.
Lee Cronin
(02:04:32)
Or raise it a bit. And the argument that I think that is really most interesting is people say the initial conditions specify the future of the universe. Okay, fine. Let’s say that’s the case for a moment. Now let’s go back to Newtonian mechanics. Now, the uncertainty principle in Newtonian mechanics is this. If I give you the coordinates of an object moving in space and the coordinates of another object and they collide in space. And those initial conditions, you should know exactly what’s going to happen. However, you cannot specify these coordinates to infinite precision. Now everyone says, “Oh, this is like the chaos theory argument.” No, no, it’s deeper than that. Here’s a problem with numbers. This is where Hilbert and Brouwer fell out. To have the coordinates of this object, a given object that’s colliding, you have to have them to infinite precision. That’s what Hilbert says. There’s no problem. Infinite precision is fine. Let’s just take that for granted.

(02:05:38)
But when the object is finite and it can’t store its own coordinates, what do you do? So in principle, if a finite object cannot be specified to infinite precision, in principle, the initial conditions don’t apply.
Lex Fridman
(02:05:58)
How do you know it can’t store its…
Lee Cronin
(02:06:01)
How do you store an in long number in a finite size?
Lex Fridman
(02:06:09)
We’re using infinity very loosely here.
Lee Cronin
(02:06:11)
No, no. We’re using…
Lex Fridman
(02:06:12)
Infinite precision. Not loosely, but…
Lee Cronin
(02:06:14)
Very precisely.
Lex Fridman
(02:06:15)
So you think infinite precision is required?
Lee Cronin
(02:06:18)
Let’s take the object. Let’s say the object is a golf ball. A golf ball is a few centimeters in diameter. We can work out how many atoms are in the golf ball. And let’s say we can store numbers down to atomic dislocations. So we can work out how many atoms there are in the golf ball and we can store the coordinates in that golf ball down to that number. But beyond that, we can’t. Let’s make the golf ball smaller. And this is where I think that we think that we get randomness in quantum mechanics and some people say you can’t get randomness, quantum mechanic’s deterministic, but aha, this is where we realize that classical mechanics and quantum mechanics suffer from the same uncertainty principle. And that is the inability to specify the initial conditions to a precise enough degree to give you determinism.

(02:07:09)
The universe is intrinsically too big and that’s why time exists. It’s non-deterministic. Looking back into the past, you can use logical arguments because you can say, “Was it true or false?” You already know. But this is the fact we are unable to predict the future with the precision is not evidence of lack of knowledge. It’s evidence the universe is generating new things.
Lex Fridman
(02:07:38)
Okay, first of all, quantum mechanics, you could just say statistically what’s going to happen when two golf balls hit each other.
Lee Cronin
(02:07:44)
Statistically. But sure, I can say statistically what’s going to happen. But then when they do happen and then you keep nesting it together, it goes almost back to, look, let’s think about entropy in the universe. So how do we understand entropy change or process? We can use the ergodic hypothesis. We can also have have the counterfactuals where we have all the different states and we can even put that in the multiverse. But both those, they’re nonphysical. The multiverse collapses back to the same problem about the precision. So if you accept, you don’t have to have true and false going forward into the future. The real numbers are real. They’re observables.
Lex Fridman
(02:08:47)
We’re trying to see exactly where time being fundamental sneaks in. And this difference between the golf ball can’t contain its own position perfectly precisely. How that leads to time needing to be fundamental.
Lee Cronin
(02:09:07)
Do you believe or do you accept you have free will?
Lex Fridman
(02:09:12)
Yeah, I think at this moment in time, I believe that I have free will.
Lee Cronin
(02:09:17)
So then you have to believe that time is fundamental.
Lex Fridman
(02:09:23)
I understand that’s a statement you’ve made.
Lee Cronin
(02:09:25)
No, that we can logically follow because if you don’t have free will, so if you’re in a universe that has no time, universe is deterministic. If it’s deterministic, then you have no free will.
Lex Fridman
(02:09:37)
I think the space of how much we don’t know is so vast that saying the universe is deterministic and from that jumping into there’s no free will is just too difficult of a leap.
Lee Cronin
(02:09:48)
No, I logically follow. No, no, I don’t disagree. It’s deep and it’s important. All I’m saying, and it’s actually different to what I’ve said before, is that if you don’t require platonistic mathematics and accepts that non-determinism is how the universe looks and that gives us our creativity and the way the universe is getting novelty, it’s really deeply important in assembly theory because assembly theory starts to actually give you a mechanism where you go from boring time, which is basically initial conditions specify everything, to a mismatch in creative time. And I hope we’ll do experiments. I would love to do an experiment that prove that time is fundamental and the universe is generating novelty. I don’t know all the features of that experiment yet, but by having these conversations openly and getting people to think about the problems in a new way, better people, more intelligent people with good mathematical backgrounds can say, “Oh, hey, I’ve got an idea. I would love to do an experiment that shows that the universe is too big for itself going forward in time.”

(02:11:04)
And this is why I really hate the idea of the Boltzmann brain. The Boltzmann brain makes me super, like everyone’s having a free lunch. It’s like saying, “Let’s break all the laws of physics.” So a Boltzmann brain is this idea that in a long enough universe, a brain will just emerge in the universe as conscious. And that neglects the causal chain of evolution that required to produce that brain. And this is where the computational argument really falls down because a computationalist could say,” I can calculate probability of a Boltzmann brain.” And they’ll give you a probability. But I can calculate probability of a Boltzmann brain. Zero.
Lex Fridman
(02:11:40)
Just because the space of possibilities is so large?
Lee Cronin
(02:11:43)
Yeah. When we start falling ourselves with numbers that we can’t actually measure and we can’t ever conceive of, I think it doesn’t give us a good explanation. And I want to explain why life is in the universe. I think life is actually novelty minor. Life basically mines novelty almost from the future and actualizes in the present.
Lex Fridman
(02:12:11)
Okay. Life is a novelty minor from the future that is actualized in the present.
Lee Cronin
(02:12:20)
Yep. I think so.
Lex Fridman
(02:12:24)
Novelty minor. First of all, novelty. What’s the origin of novelty when you go from boring time to creative time? Where is that? Is it as simple as randomness like you’re referring to?
Lee Cronin
(02:12:39)
I am really struggling with randomness because I had a really good argument with Joscha Bach about randomness, and he just said, “Randomness doesn’t give you free will. That’s insane because you’d just be random.” And I think he’s right at that level but I don’t think he is right on another level. And it’s not about randomness, it’s about constrained, I’m making this up as I go along, so making this up, constrained opportunity. So the novelty. What is novelty? This is what I think is a funny thing if you ever want to discuss AI. Why I think everyone’s gone AI mad is that they’re misunderstanding novelty. But let’s think about novelty. Yes. What is novelty? So I think novelty is a genuinely new configuration that is not predicted by the past and that you discover in the present. And that is truly different. Now, everyone says that. Some people say that novelty doesn’t exist. It’s always with precedent. I want to do experiments that show that that is not the case. And it goes back to a question you asked me a few moments ago, which is where is the factory?

(02:13:58)
Because I think the same mechanism that gives us a factory gives us novelty. And I think that is why I’m so deeply hung up on time. Of course I’m wrong, but how wrong? And I think that life opens up that combinatorial space in a way that our current laws of physics, although as contrived in a deterministic initial condition universe even with the get out of the multiverse, David Deutsch style, which I love by the way, but I don’t think is correct, but it’s really beautiful.
Lex Fridman
(02:14:37)
Multiverse.
Lee Cronin
(02:14:38)
David Deutsche’s conception of the multiverse is given. But I think that the problem with wave particle duality in quantum mechanics is not about the multiverse. It’s about understanding how determined the past is. I don’t just think that actually, this is a discussion I was having with Sara about that, where she was like, “Oh, I think we’ve been debating this for a long time now, about how do we reconcile novelty determinism in determinism.”
Lex Fridman
(02:15:13)
Okay. Just to clarify, both you and Sara think the universe is not deterministic?
Lee Cronin
(02:15:19)
I won’t speak for Sara but roughly. I think the universe is deterministic looking back in the past but undetermined going forward in the future. So I’m having my cake and eating it here. This is because I fundamentally don’t understand randomness, as Joscha told me or other people told me. But if I adopt a new view now which the new view is the universe is just non-deterministic, but I’d like to refine that and say the universe appears deterministic going back in the past but it’s undetermined going forward in the future. So how can we have a universe that has deterministically looking rules that’s non-determined
Lee Cronin
(02:16:00)
… universe that has deterministically-looking rules that is non-determined going into the future. It’s this breakdown in precision in the initial conditions, and we have to just stop using initial conditions and start looking at trajectories, and how the combinatorial space behaves in an expanding universe in time and space. And assembly theory helps us quantify the transition to biology, and biology appears to be novelty-mining, because it’s making crazy stuff that are unique to Earth. Right? There are objects on Earth that are unique to Earth that will not be found anywhere else, because you can do the combinatorial math.
Lex Fridman
(02:16:41)
What was that statement you made about “life is novelty-mining from the future”? What’s the little element of time that you’re introducing there?
Lee Cronin
(02:16:51)
What I’m kind of meaning is because the future is bigger than the present, in a deterministic universe, how do the states go from one to another? There’s a mismatch, right?
Lex Fridman
(02:17:02)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(02:17:03)
So, that must mean that you have a little bit of indeterminism. Whether that’s randomness or something else, I don’t understand. I want to do experiments to formulate a theory to refine that as we go forward that might help us explain that. And I think that’s why I’m so determined to try and crack the “non-life to life” transition looking at networks and molecules, and that might help us think about the mechanism. But certainly the future is bigger than the past in my conception of the universe and some conception of the universe. And-
Lex Fridman
(02:17:35)
By the way, that’s not obvious, right? The future being bigger than the past, well, that’s one statement, and the statement that the universe is not big enough to contain the future is another statement. That one is a big one. That one’s a really big one.
Lee Cronin
(02:17:53)
I think so, but I think it’s entirely … Because look, we have the second law, and right now we don’t need the second law if the future’s bigger than the past. It follows naturally. So, why are we retrofitting all these sticking plasters onto our reality to hold onto a timeless universe?
Lex Fridman
(02:18:13)
Yeah, but that’s because it’s kind of difficult to imagine the universe that can’t contain the future.
Lee Cronin
(02:18:21)
But isn’t that really exciting?
Lex Fridman
(02:18:23)
It’s very exciting, but it’s hard. We are humans on Earth, and we have a very kind of four-dimensional conception of the world, of 3D plus time. It’s just hard to intuit a world where, what does that even mean, a universe that can’t contain the future?
Lee Cronin
(02:18:47)
Yeah. It’s kind of crazy but obvious.
Lex Fridman
(02:18:50)
It’s weird, it’s weird. I suppose it sounds obvious, yeah, if it’s true.
Lee Cronin
(02:18:56)
So, the reason why assembly theory turned me onto that was that, let’s just start in the present, and look at all the complex molecules, and go backwards in time, and understand how evolutionary processes gave rise to them. It’s not at all obvious that taxol, which is one of the most complex natural products produced by biology, was going to be invented by biology. It’s an accident.

(02:19:24)
Taxol is unique to Earth. There’s no taxol elsewhere in the universe, and taxol was not decided by the initial conditions. It was decided by this interplay between the … So, the past simply is embedded in the present. It gives some features. But why the past doesn’t map to the future one-to-one is because the universe is too big to contain itself. That gives space for creativity, and novelty, and some things which are unpredictable.

Cellular automata

Lex Fridman
(02:19:57)
Well, okay. So, given that you’re disrespecting the power of the initial conditions, let me ask you about, how do you explain that cellular automata are able to produce such incredible complexity given just basic rules and basic initial conditions?
Lee Cronin
(02:20:12)
I think that this falls into the Brouwer-Hilbert trap. So, how do you get cellular automata to produce complexity? You have a computer, you generate a display, and you map the change of that in time. There are some CAs that repeat like functions.

(02:20:32)
It’s fascinating to me that for pi, there is a formula where you can go to the millionth decimal place of pi and read out the number without having to go there. But there are some numbers where you can’t do that, and you have to just crank through. Whether it’s Wolframian computational irreducibility or some other thing, well, it doesn’t matter. But these CAs, that complexity, is that just complexity, or a number that is basically you’re mining that number in time? Is that just a display screen for that number, that function?
Lex Fridman
(02:21:10)
Well, can’t you say the same thing about the complexity on Earth then?
Lee Cronin
(02:21:12)
No. Because the complexity on Earth has a copy number and an assembly index associated with it. That CA is just a number running.
Lex Fridman
(02:21:20)
You don’t think it has a copy number? Wait a minute …
Lee Cronin
(02:21:23)
Well, it does where we’re looking at humans producing different rules, but then it’s nested on selection. So, those CAs are produced by selection. The CA is such a fascinating pseudo-complexity generator. What I would love to do is understand, quantify the degree of surprise in a CA and run it long enough. But what I guess that means is we have to instantiate, we have to have a number of experiments where we’re generating different rules and running them time steps, but … Oh, I got it.

(02:21:53)
CAs are mining novelty in the future by iteration, right? And you’re like, ” Oh, that’s great. That’s great.” You didn’t predict it. Some rules you can predict what’s going to happen, and other rules you can’t. So for me, if anything, CAs are evidence that the universe is too big to contain itself, because otherwise you’d know what the rules are going to do forevermore.
Lex Fridman
(02:22:14)
Right. I guess you were saying that the physicist saying that all you need is the initial conditions and the rules of physics is somehow missing the bigger picture.
Lee Cronin
(02:22:26)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(02:22:27)
And if you look at CAs, all you need is the initial condition and the rules, and then run the thing.
Lee Cronin
(02:22:33)
You need three things; You need the initial conditions, you need the rules, and you need time iteration to mine it out. Without the coordinate, you can’t get it out.
Lex Fridman
(02:22:45)
Sure, and that to you is fundamental?
Lee Cronin
(02:22:47)
And you can’t predict it from the initial conditions. If you could, then it could be fine.
Lex Fridman
(02:22:51)
And that time is-
Lee Cronin
(02:22:53)
A resource.
Lex Fridman
(02:22:54)
… like the foundation of the history, the memory of each of the things it created. It has to have that memory of all the things that led up to it.
Lee Cronin
(02:23:05)
Yeah, you have to have the resource. Because time is a fundamental resource. Yeah, I think I had a major epiphany about randomness, but I keep doing that every two days and then it goes away again. It’s random.
Lex Fridman
(02:23:24)
You’re a time fundamentalist.
Lee Cronin
(02:23:26)
And you should be as well. If you believe in free will, then the only conclusion is that time is fundamental. Otherwise you cannot have free will. It logically follows.
Lex Fridman
(02:23:37)
Well, the foundation of my belief in free will is observation-driven.
Lee Cronin
(02:23:48)
But that’s-
Lex Fridman
(02:23:48)
I think if you use logic, logically it seems like the universe is deterministic.
Lee Cronin
(02:23:55)
Looking backwards in time then that’s correct, the universe is.
Lex Fridman
(02:23:59)
And then everything else is a kind of leap. It requires a leap.
Lee Cronin
(02:24:11)
This is why I think machine learning is going to provide a chunk of that, right? To help us explain this. So, the way I’d say it, if you take …
Lex Fridman
(02:24:19)
That’s interesting. Why?

AGI

Lee Cronin
(02:24:21)
Well, my favorite one is … Because AI doomers are driving me mad, and in fact we don’t have any intelligence yet. I call AI “autonomous informatics” just to make people grumpy.
Lex Fridman
(02:24:34)
Yeah. You’re saying we’re quite far away from AGI.
Lee Cronin
(02:24:39)
I think that we have no conception of intelligence, and I think that we don’t understand how the human brain does what it does. I think that neuroscience is making great advances, but I think that we have no idea about AGI. So, I am a technological, I guess optimist. I believe we should do everything. The whole regulation of AI is nonsensical. Why would you regulate Excel, other than the fact that Clippy should come back and I love Excel ’97 because we can do the flight simulator.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:11)
Sorry, in Excel?
Lee Cronin
(02:25:12)
Yeah, have you not played the flight simulator in-
Lex Fridman
(02:25:14)
In Excel ’97?
Lee Cronin
(02:25:16)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:18)
What does that look like?
Lee Cronin
(02:25:19)
It’s like wireframe, very basic. But basically I think it’s X zero, Y zero, shift, and it opens up and you can play the flight simulator.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:29)
Oh, wow. Wait, wait, is it using Excel?
Lee Cronin
(02:25:32)
Excel ’97.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:33)
Okay.
Lee Cronin
(02:25:34)
I resurrected it the other day and saw Clippy again for the first time in a long time.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:37)
Well, Clippy is definitely coming back. But you’re saying we don’t have a great understanding of what is intelligence, what is the intelligence underpinning the human mind.
Lee Cronin
(02:25:50)
I’m very frustrated by the way that we’re AI dooming right now, and people are bestowing some kind of magic. Now, let’s go back a bit. So, you said about AGI, are we far away from AGI? Yes. I do not think we’re going to get to AGI anytime soon. I’ve seen no evidence of it, and the AI doom scenario is nonsensical in the extreme.

(02:26:12)
The reason why I think it’s nonsensical … And I don’t think there isn’t things we should do and be very worried about. There are things we need to worry about right now, what AI are doing. Whether it’s fake data, fake users. I want authentic people, authentic data. I don’t want everything to be faked, and I think it’s a really big problem, and I absolutely want to go on the record to say I really worry about that. What I’m not worried about is that some fictitious entity is going to turn us all to paperclips or detonate nuclear bombs, or maybe, I don’t know, anything you can think of.

(02:26:49)
Why is this? I’ll take a very simple series of logical arguments, and the AI doomers do not have the correct epistemology. They do not understand what knowledge is. And until we understand what knowledge is, they’re not going to get anywhere because they’re applying things falsely. So, let me give you a very simple argument.

(02:27:18)
People talk about the probability, “P(doom)”, of AI. We can work out the probability of an asteroid hitting the planet. Why? Because it’s happened before. We know the mechanism. We know that there’s a gravity well, or that spacetime is bent and stuff falls in. We don’t know the probability of AGI because we have no mechanism. So, let me give you another one, which is like, “I’m really worried about AG.” What’s AG? AG is anti-gravity. “One day we could wake up and anti-gravity is discovered, we’re all going to die, the atmosphere is going to float away, we’re going to float away, we’re all doomed.”

(02:27:52)
What is the probability of AG? We don’t know because there’s no mechanism for AG. Do we worry about it? No, and I don’t understand the current reason for certain people in certain areas to be generating this nonsense. I think they’re not doing it maliciously. I think we’re observing the emergence of new religions, how religions come, because religions are about some controls.

(02:28:20)
You’ve got the optimist saying, “AI is going to cure us all,” and, “AI is going to kill us all.” What’s the reality? Well, we don’t have AI. We have really powerful machine learning tools and they will allow us to do interesting things, and we need to be careful about how we use those tools in terms of manipulating human beings and faking stuff. Right?
Lex Fridman
(02:28:38)
Right. Well, let me try to steel man the AI doomers’ argument. And actually, I don’t know, are AI doomers in the Yudkowsky camp saying it’s definitely going to kill us? Because there’s a spectrum.
Lee Cronin
(02:28:38)
95% I think is the limit.
Lex Fridman
(02:28:54)
Plus? 95%-plus, that’s the-
Lee Cronin
(02:28:55)
No, not plus. I don’t know. I was seeing on Twitter today various things. But I think Yudkowsky is at 95%.
Lex Fridman
(02:29:02)
But to belong to the AI doomer club, is there a threshold? I don’t know what the membership …
Lee Cronin
(02:29:06)
Maybe.
Lex Fridman
(02:29:07)
And what are the fees?
Lee Cronin
(02:29:09)
Well, I think Scott Aronson, I was quite surprised, had put two … I saw this online, so I could be wrong. So, sorry if it’s wrong. He says 2%. But the thing is, if someone said there’s a 2% chance that you’re going to die going into the lift, would you go into the lift?
Lex Fridman
(02:29:24)
In the elevator, for the American English-speaking audience. Well, no, not for the elevator.
Lee Cronin
(02:29:30)
So, I would say anyone higher than 2% … I think there’s a 0% chance of AGI doom. Zero.
Lex Fridman
(02:29:37)
Just to push back on the argument where N of zero on the AGI … We could see on Earth that there’s increasing levels of intelligence of organisms. We can see what humans with extra intelligence were able to do to the other species. So, that is a lot of samples of data, what a delta in intelligence gives you. When you have an increase in intelligence, how you’re able to dominate a species on Earth.

(02:30:08)
So, the idea there is that if you have a being that’s 10x smarter than humans, we’re not going to be able to predict what that being is going to be able to do, especially if it has the power to hurt humans. Which, you can imagine a lot of trajectories in which the more benefit AI systems give, the more control we give to those AI systems over our power grid, over our nuclear weapons, or weapons of any sort. And then it’s hard to know what an ultra-intelligence system would be able to do in that case. You don’t find that convincing?
Lee Cronin
(02:30:50)
I think I would fail that argument 100%. Here’s a number of reasons to fail it on. First of all, we don’t know where the intention comes from. The problem is that people keep … I’ve been watching all the hucksters online with the prompt engineering and all this stuff. When I talk to a typical AI computer scientist, they keep talking about the AIs having some kind of decision-making ability. That is a category error.

(02:31:17)
The decision-making ability comes from human beings. We have no understanding of how humans make decisions. We’ve just been discussing free will for the last half an hour, right? We don’t even know what that is. So, the intention, I totally agree with you, people who intend to do bad things can do bad things and we should not let that risk go. That’s totally here and now. I do not want that to happen, and I’m happy to be regulated to make sure that systems I generate, whether they’re computer systems, or … I’m working on a new project called “Chem Machina”.
Lex Fridman
(02:31:53)
Nice. Well done.
Lee Cronin
(02:31:54)
Yeah, yeah. Which is basically a …
Lex Fridman
(02:31:59)
For people who don’t understand the pun, the Ex Machina is a great film about I guess AGI embodied, and “chem” is the chemistry version of that.
Lee Cronin
(02:32:07)
And I only know one way to embody intelligence, and that’s in chemistry and human brains. So, category error number one is that they have agency. Category error number two is assuming that anything we make is going to be more intelligent. Now, you didn’t say super-intelligent. I’ll put the words into our mouths here, super-intelligent. I think that there is no reason to expect that we are going to make systems that are more intelligent. More capable …

(02:32:38)
When people play chess computers, they don’t expect to win now, right? The chess computer is very good at chess. That doesn’t mean it’s super-intelligent. So, I think that super-intelligence, and I think even Nick Bostrom is pulling back on this now, because he invented this … So, I see this a lot. When did I see it first happen? Eric Drexler, nanotechnology. Atomically precise machines. He came up with a world where we had these atom cogs everywhere and we were going to make self-replicating nanobots.

(02:33:06)
Not possible. Why? Because there’s no resources to build these self-replicating nanobots. You can’t get the precision. It doesn’t work. It was a major category error in taking engineering principles down to the molecular level. The only functioning nanomolecular technology we know is produced by evolution. There.

(02:33:27)
So, now let’s go forward to AGI. What is AGI? We don’t know. It’s super, it can do this, or humans can’t think. I would argue the only AGIs that exist in the universe are produced by evolution. And sure, we may be able to make our working memory better. We might be able to do more things. The human brain is the most compact computing unit in the universe. It uses 20 watts, uses a really limited volume. It’s not like a ChatGPT cluster which has to have thousands of watts, and a model that’s generated, and it has to be corrected by human beings. You are autonomous and embodied intelligence.

(02:34:04)
So, I think that there are so many levels that we’re missing out, we’ve just kind of went, “Oh, we’ve discovered fire. Oh gosh, the planet’s just going to burn one day randomly.” I just don’t understand that leap. There are bigger problems we need to worry about. So, what is the motivation? Why are these people, and let’s assume they’re earnest, have this conviction? Well, I think they’re making leaps and they’re trapped in a virtual reality that isn’t reality.
Lex Fridman
(02:34:34)
Well, I can continue a set of arguments here, but also it is true that ideologies that fearmonger are dangerous. Because you can then use it to control, to regulate in a way that halts progress, to control people, and to cancel people, all that kind of stuff. So, you have to be careful, because reason ultimately wins. Right?

(02:35:03)
But there is a lot of concerns with super-intelligent systems, very capable systems. I think when you hear the word “super-intelligent”, you’re hearing, “It’s smarter than humans in every way that humans are smart.” But the paperclip manufacturing system doesn’t need to be smart in every way. It just needs to be smart in a set of specific ways. And the more capable the AI systems become, the more you could see us giving them control over, like I said, our power grid, a lot of aspects of human life. And then that means they’ll be able to do more and more damage when there’s unintended consequences that come to life.
Lee Cronin
(02:35:46)
I think that that’s right. The unintended consequences we have to think about, and that I fully agree with. But let’s go back a bit. Sentience … Again, I’m far away from my comfort zone and all this stuff, but hey, let’s talk about it. Because I give myself a qualification.
Lex Fridman
(02:36:02)
Yeah, we’re both qualified in sentience, I think, as much as anyone else.
Lee Cronin
(02:36:07)
I think the paperclip scenario is just such a poor one, because let’s think about how that would happen. And also, let’s think about, we are being so unrealistic about how much of the Earth’s surface we have commandeered. For paperclip manufacturing to really happen, do the math. It’s not going to happen. There’s not enough energy, there’s not enough resource. Where is it all going to come from?

(02:36:32)
I think that what happens in evolution, it’s really: Why has a killer virus not killed all life on Earth? Well, what happens is, sure, superkiller viruses that kill the ribosome have emerged. But you know what happens? They nuke a small space because they can’t propagate. They all die. So, there’s this interplay between evolution and propagation, right? And death. So …
Lex Fridman
(02:36:56)
In evolution. You don’t think it’s possible to engineer, for example, and sorry to interrupt, but a perfect virus?
Lee Cronin
(02:37:02)
No.
Lex Fridman
(02:37:02)
That’s deadly enough?
Lee Cronin
(02:37:04)
No. Nonsensical. I think again, it wouldn’t work. Because if it was too deadly, it would just kill the radius and not replicate.
Lex Fridman
(02:37:11)
Yeah. But you don’t think it’s possible to get a …
Lee Cronin
(02:37:16)
If you were …
Lex Fridman
(02:37:17)
Not kill all of life on Earth, but kill all humans. There’s not many of us. There’s only like 8 billion. There’s so much more ants. So many more ants, and they’re pretty smart.
Lee Cronin
(02:37:32)
I think the nice thing about where we are, I would love for the AI crowd to take a leaf out of the book of the bio-warfare, chemical warfare crowd. I mean, not love, because actually people have been killed with chemical weapons in the first and second World War, and bio-weapons have been made, and we can argue about COVID-19 and all this stuff. Let’s not go there just now. But I think there is a consensus that some certain things are bad and we shouldn’t do them, right? And sure, it would be possible for a bad actor to engineer something bad, but we would see it coming and we would be able to do something about it.

(02:38:16)
Now, I guess what I’m trying to say is when people talk about doom, and when you ask them for the mechanism, they just make something up. In this case, I’m with Yann LeCun. I think you put out a very good point about trying to regulate jet engines before we’ve even invented them. And I think that’s what I’m saying.

(02:38:39)
I’m not saying we should … I just don’t understand why these guys are going around literally making stuff up about us all dying, when basically we need to actually really focus on … Now, let’s say there’s some actors that are earnest. Let’s say Yudkowsky is being earnest and he really cares. But he loves it. He goes, “Da, da, da, and then you’re all going to die.” It’s like, why don’t we try and do the same thing and say, “You could do this, and then you’re all going to be happy forever after”?
Lex Fridman
(02:39:07)
Well, I think there’s several things to say there. One, I think there is a role in society for people that say we’re all going to die. Because I think it filters through as a message, as a viral message that gives us the proper amount of concern. Meaning it’s not 95%, but when you say 95% and it filters through society, it’ll give an average of like a 0.03%. An average. So, it’s nice to have people that are like, “We’re all going to die,” and then we’ll have a proper concern.

(02:39:41)
For example, I do believe we’re not properly concerned about the threat of nuclear weapons currently. It just seems like people have forgotten that that’s a thing, and there’s a war in Ukraine with a nuclear power involved. There’s nuclear powers throughout the world, and it just feels like war in the brink of a potential world war to a percentage that I don’t think people are properly calibrating in their head. We’re all thinking it’s a Twitter battle as opposed to actual threat.

(02:40:12)
So, it’s nice to have that kind of level of concern. But to me, when I hear AI doomers, what I’m imagining is with unintended consequences a potential situation where let’s say 5% of the world suffers deeply because of a mistake made, of unintended consequences. I don’t want to imagine the entirety of human civilization dying, but there could be a lot of suffering if this is done poorly.
Lee Cronin
(02:40:39)
I understand that, and I guess I’m involved in the whole hype cycle. So, let’s say having some people saying AI doom is a worry, fine. Let’s give them that. But what seems to be happening is there seems to be people who don’t think AI is doing that, and they’re trying to use that to control regulation and to push people to regulate, which stops humans generating knowledge. And I am an advocate for generating as much knowledge as possible.

Nuclear weapons


(02:41:15)
When it comes to nuclear weapons, I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s where there was nuclear doom and a lot of adults really had existential threat, almost as bad as now with AI doom. They were really worried. There were some great … Well, not great. There were some horrific documentaries. I think there was one called Threads that was generated in the UK, which, it was terrible. It was so scary.

(02:41:40)
And I think that the correct thing to do is obviously get rid of nuclear weapons, but let’s think about unintended consequences. We’ve got rid of … This is going to be such a non sequitur. We got rid of all the sulfur particles in the atmosphere, right? All the soot. And what’s happened in the last couple of years is global warming has accelerated because we’ve cleaned up the atmosphere too much. So …
Lex Fridman
(02:42:02)
Sure. The same thing if you get rid of nuclear weapons. You’ll get [inaudible 02:42:05]-
Lee Cronin
(02:42:05)
Exactly, that’s my point. So, what we could do is if we actually started to put the AI in charge … Which I’d really like an AI to be in charge of all world politics, and this will sound ridiculous for a second. Hang on. But if we could all agree on the-
Lex Fridman
(02:42:19)
The AI doomers just woke up on that statement.
Lee Cronin
(02:42:22)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I really don’t like politicians who are basically just looking at local sampling. But if you could say globally, “Look, here’s some game theory here. What is the minimum number of nuclear weapons we need to distribute around the world to everybody to basically reduce war to zero?”
Lex Fridman
(02:42:40)
Just the thought experiment of, the United States and China and Russia and major nuclear powers get together and say, “All right, we’re going to distribute nuclear weapons to every single nation on Earth.” Oh, boy. That has a probably greater than 50% chance of eliminating major military conflict, but it’s not a hundred percent.
Lee Cronin
(02:43:07)
But I don’t think anyone will use them, because … And look, what you’ve got to try and do is to qualify for these nuclear weapons … This is a great idea. The game theorists could do this, right?
Lex Fridman
(02:43:19)
Uh-huh.
Lee Cronin
(02:43:20)
I think the question is this … I really buy your question. We have too many nukes. Just from a feeling point of view, that we’ve got too many of them. So, let’s reduce the number, but not get rid of them because we’ll have too much conventional warfare. So then, what is the minimum number of nuclear weapons we can distribute around to remove … Humans hurting each other is something we should stop doing. It’s not out with our conceptual capability …

(02:43:46)
But right now, what about certain nations that are being exploited for their natural resources in the future for a short-term gain because we don’t want to generate knowledge? So, if everybody had an equal doomsday switch, I predict the quality of life of the average human will go up faster. I am an optimist, and I believe that humanity is going to get better and better and better, that we’re going to eliminate more problems. But I think, yeah, let’s-
Lex Fridman
(02:44:13)
But the probability of a bad actor, of one of the nations setting off a nuclear weapon, you have to integrate that into the calculus here.
Lee Cronin
(02:44:26)
But we just give you [inaudible 02:44:28] nukes population. Right? What we do is we … I can’t believe this. But anyway, let’s just go there. So, if a small nation with a couple of nukes uses one because they’re a bit bored or annoyed, the likelihood that they are going to be pummeled out of existence immediately is 100%. And yet they’ve only nuked one other city. I know this is crazy, and I apologize for …
Lex Fridman
(02:44:51)
Well, no, no. Just to be clear, we’re just having a thought experiment that’s interesting. But there’s terrorist organizations that would take that trade. We have to ask ourselves a question of: Which percentage of humans would be suicide bombers, essentially? Where they would sacrifice their own life because they hate another group of people. I believe it’s a very small fraction, but is it large enough to, if you give out nuclear weapons …
Lee Cronin
(02:45:25)
I can predict a future where we take all nuclear material and we burn it for energy, right? Because we’re getting there. And the other thing you could do is say, “Look, there’s a gap.” So, if we get all the countries to sign up to the virtual agreement where we have a simulation where we can nuke each other in the simulation and the economic consequences are catastrophic …
Lex Fridman
(02:45:43)
Sure. In the simulation, I love it. It’s not going to kill all humans, it’s just going to have economic consequences.
Lee Cronin
(02:45:49)
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know, I just made it up. It seems like a cool idea.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:51)
No, it’s interesting. But it’s interesting whether that would have as much power on human psychology as actual physical nuclear explosion.
Lee Cronin
(02:45:59)
I think so.
Lex Fridman
(02:46:00)
It’s possible, but people don’t take economic consequences as seriously I think as actual nuclear weapons exploding.
Lee Cronin
(02:46:07)
I think they do in Argentina, and they do in Somalia. And they do in a lot of these places where … No, I think this is a great idea. I’m a strong advocate now for … So, what have we come up with? Burning all the nuclear material to have energy. And before we do that, because MAD is good, mutually assured destruction is very powerful, let’s take it into the metaverse and then get people to kind of subscribe to that. And if they actually nuke each other even for fun in the metaverse, there are dire consequences.
Lex Fridman
(02:46:36)
Yeah, yeah. So, it’s like a video game. We all have to join this metaverse video game …
Lee Cronin
(02:46:41)
Yeah. I can’t believe we just …
Lex Fridman
(02:46:43)
And then there’s dire economic consequences. And it’s all run by AI, as you mentioned, so the AI doomers are really terrified at this point.
Lee Cronin
(02:46:52)
No, they’re happy. They have a job for another 20 years, right?
Lex Fridman
(02:46:55)
Oh, fear-mongering.
Lee Cronin
(02:46:56)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a believer in equal employment.

Chem Machina

Lex Fridman
(02:47:00)
You’ve mentioned that, what’d you call it … Chem Machina?
Lee Cronin
(02:47:06)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(02:47:07)
Yeah. So, you’ve mentioned that a chemical brain is something you’re interested in creating, and that’s the way to get conscious AI soon. Can you explain what a chemical brain is?
Lee Cronin
(02:47:22)
I want to understand the mechanism of intelligence that’s gone through evolution, right? Because the way that intelligence was produced by evolution appears to be the following: origin of life, multi-cellularity, locomotion, senses. Once you can start to see things coming towards you, and you can remember the past and interrogate the present and imagine the future, you can do something amazing, right? And I think only in recent years did humans become Turing-complete, right?
Lex Fridman
(02:47:57)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(02:47:58)
Right? So, that Turing completeness kind of gave us another kick up. But our ability to process that information was produced in a wet brain. And I think that we do not have the correct hardware architectures to have the domain flexibility and the ability to integrate information, and I think intelligence also comes at a massive compromise of data. Right now we’re obsessing about getting more and more data, more and more processing, more and more tricks to get dopamine hits. So, when we look back on this going, “Oh yeah, that was really cool, because when I asked ChatGPT, it made me feel really happy and I got a hit from it.” But actually it just exposed how little intelligence I use in every moment, because I’m easily fooled.

(02:48:58)
So, what I would like to do is to say, “Well, hey, hang on. What is it about the brain?” So, the brain has this incredible connectivity, and it has the ability to … As I said earlier about my nephew, I went from “Bill” to “Billy” and he went, “All right, Leroy.” How did he make that leap? That he was able to basically without any training … I extended his name in a way that he doesn’t like. He wants to be called Bill. He went back and said, “You like to be called Lee? I’m going to call you Leroy.”

(02:49:29)
So, human beings have a brilliant ability, or intelligent beings appear to have a brilliant ability to integrate across all domains all at once, and to synthesize something which allows us to generate knowledge. And becoming Turing-complete on our own, although AIs are built and Turing-complete things, their thinking is not Turing-complete in that they are not able to build universal explanations. And that lack of universal explanation means that they’re just-
Lee Cronin
(02:50:00)
Lack of universal explanation means that they’re just inductivists. Inductivism doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s just basically a party trick. I think it’s in The Fabric Of Reality from David Deutsch where basically the farmer is feeding the chicken every day and the chicken’s getting fat and happy. And the chicken’s like, “I’m really happy every time the farmer comes in and feeds me.” And then one day the farmer comes in and instead of feeding the chicken, just rings its neck. And had the chicken had an alternative understanding of why the farmer was feeding it.
Lex Fridman
(02:50:37)
It’s interesting though, because we don’t know what’s special about the human mind that’s able to come up with these kind of generalities. This universal theories of things. And we’ll come up with novelty. I can imagine… Because you gave an example about William and Leroy. I feel like an example like that we’ll be able to see in future versions of large language models. We’ll be really, really, really impressed by the humor, the insights, all of it. Because it’s fundamentally trained on all the incredible humor and insights that’s available out there on the internet. So we’ll be impressed. I think we’ll be impressed.
Lee Cronin
(02:51:22)
Oh, I’m impressed. I’m impressed.
Lex Fridman
(02:51:25)
Increasingly so.
Lee Cronin
(02:51:26)
But we are mining the past.
Lex Fridman
(02:51:28)
Yes.
Lee Cronin
(02:51:28)
And what the human brain appears to be able to do is mine the future.
Lex Fridman
(02:51:31)
Yes. So novelty, it is interesting whether these large language models will ever be able to come up with something truly novel.
Lee Cronin
(02:51:41)
I can show on the back of a piece of paper why that’s impossible. And it’s like the problem is that… And again these are domain experts kind of bullshitting each other. The term generative, right. Average person say, oh, it’s no, no, no. Look, if I take the numbers between zero and 1000 and I train a model to pick out the prime numbers by giving all the prime numbers between zero and a thousand, it doesn’t know what prime number is. Occasionally if I can cheat a bit, it will start to guess.

(02:52:12)
It never will produce anything out with the dataset because you mine the past. The thing that I’m getting to is I think that actually current machine learning technologies might actually help reveal why time is fundamental. It’s like kind of insane. Because they tell you about what’s happened in the past, but they can never help you understand what’s happening in the future without training examples. Sure, if that thing happens again. So let’s think about what large language models are doing. We have all the internet as we know it, language, but also they’re doing something else. We having human beings correcting it all the time. Those models are being corrected,
Lex Fridman
(02:52:54)
Steered.
Lee Cronin
(02:52:56)
Corrected, modified, tweaked.
Lex Fridman
(02:53:01)
Well, yeah, but-
Lee Cronin
(02:53:02)
Cheating.
Lex Fridman
(02:53:04)
Well you could say the training on human data in the first place is cheating.
Lee Cronin
(02:53:08)
Well, human is in the loop. Sorry to interrupt.
Lex Fridman
(02:53:10)
Yes. So human is definitely in the loop, but it’s not just human is in the loop. A very large collection of humans is in the loop.
Lee Cronin
(02:53:10)
Look I totally-
Lex Fridman
(02:53:21)
And that could be… I mean to me it’s not intuitive that you said prime numbers, that the system can’t generate an algorithm. That the algorithm that can generate prime numbers or the algorithm that can tell you if a number is prime and so on. And generate algorithms that generate algorithms, that generate algorithms that start to look a lot like human reasoning.
Lee Cronin
(02:53:46)
I think again, we can show that on a piece of paper, that sure. I think you have to have… So this is the failure in epidemiology. I’m glad I even can say that word, let know what it means.
Lex Fridman
(02:53:59)
You said it multiple times.
Lee Cronin
(02:54:00)
I know. It’s like three times now.
Lex Fridman
(02:54:01)
Without failure. Quit while you’re ahead. Just don’t say it again because you did really well.
Lee Cronin
(02:54:07)
Thanks. But I think, so what is reasoning? So coming back to the chemical brain. If I could show the inner… Because I mean I’m never going to make an intelligence in ca machina. Because if you don’t have brain cells, they don’t have glial cells, they don’t have neurons. But if I can take a gel and engineer the gel to have it be a hybrid hardware for reprogramming, which I think I know how to do, I will able to process a lot more information and train models billions of times cheaper and use cross domain knowledge. And there’s certain techniques I think we can do. But there’s still missing, though the abilities that human beings have had to become true and complete. And so I guess the question to give back at you is like how do you tell the difference between trial and error and the generation of new knowledge?

(02:55:06)
I think the way you can do it is this, is that you come up with a theory, an explanation, inspiration comes from out, and then you then test that, and then you see that’s going towards the truth. And human beings are very good at doing that. And the transition between philosophy, mathematics, physics and natural sciences. And I think that we can see that. Where I get confused is why people misappropriate the term artificial intelligence to say, “Hey, there’s something else going on here.” Because I think you and I both agree, machine learning’s really good, it’s only going to get better. We’re going to get happier with the outcome. But why would you ever think the model is thinking or reasoning? Reasoning requires intention. And the intention, if the model isn’t reasoning, the intentions come from the prompter. And the intention has come from the person who programmed it to do it.
Lex Fridman
(02:56:08)
But don’t you think you can prompt it to have intention?Basically start with the initial conditions and get it going? Where currently large language models, ChatGPT only talks to you when you talk to it. There’s no reason why you can’t just start it talking.
Lee Cronin
(02:56:31)
But those initial conditions came from someone starting it.
Lex Fridman
(02:56:35)
Yes.
Lee Cronin
(02:56:35)
And that causal chain in there. So that intention comes from the outside. I think that there is something in that causal chain of intention that’s super important. I don’t disagree, we’re going to get to AGI. It’s a matter of when and what hardware. I think we’re not going to do it in this hardware and I think we’re unnecessarily fetishizing really cool outputs and dopamine hits. Because obviously that’s what people want to sell us.
Lex Fridman
(02:56:57)
Well, but there could be AGI is a loaded term. But there could be incredibly super impressive intelligence systems on the way to AGI. So these large language models, I mean if it appears conscious, if it appears super intelligent, who are we to say it’s not.
Lee Cronin
(02:57:21)
I agree, but the super intelligence I want, I want to be able to have a discussion with it about coming up with fundamental new ideas that generate knowledge. And if the superintelligent we generate can mine novel even from the future that I didn’t see in its training set in the past, I would agree that something really interesting is coming on. I’ll say that again. If the intelligence system, be it a human being, a Chatbot, something else, is able to produce something truly novel that I could not predict ,even having full audit trail from the past, then I’ll be sold.
Lex Fridman
(02:57:58)
Well, so we should be clear that it can currently produce things that are in a shallow sense novel. That are not in the training set. But you’re saying truly novel.
Lee Cronin
(02:58:11)
I think they are in the training set. I think everything it produces comes from a training set. There’s a difference between novelty and interpolation. We do not understand where these leaps come from yet. That is what intelligence is I would argue. Those leaps and some people say no, it’s actually just what will happen if you just do cross domain training and all that stuff. And that may be true. And I may be completely wrong. But right now the human mind is able to mine novelty in a way that artificial intelligence systems cannot. And this is why we still all have a job. And we’re still doing staff. And I used ChatGPT for a few weeks. Oh this is cool. And then what happened is it took me too much time to correct it. Then it got really good. And now they’ve done something to it. It’s not actually that good.
Lex Fridman
(02:58:58)
Yeah, right.
Lee Cronin
(02:58:59)
I don’t know what’s going on.
Lex Fridman
(02:59:00)
Censorship. Yeah, I mean that’s interesting. But it will push us humans to characterize novelty better. Characterize the novel, what is novel, what is truly novel, what’s the difference between novelty and interpolation.
Lee Cronin
(02:59:10)
I think that this is the thing that makes me most excited about these technologies, is they’re going to help me demonstrate to you that time is fundamental. And the unit future is bigger than the present. Which is why human beings are quite good at generating novelty because we have to expand our dataset. And to cope with unexpected things in our environment. Our environment throws them all at us. Again, we have to survive in that environment. And I mean, I never say never. I would be very interested in how we can get cross domain training cheaply in chemical systems. Because I’m a chemist and bray, the only sim thing I know of is a human brain. But maybe that’s just me being boring and predictable and not novel.

GPT for electron density

Lex Fridman
(02:59:54)
Yeah. You mentioned GPT for electron density. So a GPT like system for generating molecules that can bind to host automatically. I mean that’s interesting. I’s really interesting. Applying this same kind of transform mechanism.
Lee Cronin
(03:00:11)
I mean, my team, I try and do things that are non obvious but non obvious in certain areas. And one of the things I was always asking about in chemistry, people like to represent molecules as graphs and it’s quite difficult. It’s really hard if you’re doing AI and chemistry, you really want to basically have good representations. You can generate new molecules are interesting. And I was thinking, well molecules aren’t really graphs and they’re not continuously differentiable. Could I do something that was continuously differentiable? I was like, well, molecules are actually made up of electron density. So I got thinking and say, well, okay, could there be a way where we could just basically take a database of readily solved electron densities for millions of molecules? So we took the electron density for millions of molecules and just train the model to learn what electron density is.

(03:01:06)
And so what we built was a system that you literally could give it a, let’s say you could take a protein that has a particular active site or a cup with a certain hole in it. You pour noise into it and with A GPT you turn the noise into electron density. And then in this case it hallucinates, like all of them do. But then hallucinations are good because it means I don’t have to train on such a huge dataset, because these data sets are very expensive. How do you produce it? So go back a step. So you’ve got all these molecules in this dataset, but what you’ve literally done is a quantum mechanical calculation. We produce electron densities for each molecule. So you say, oh, this representation of this molecule has these electron densities associated with it, so you know what the representation is and you train the neural network to know what electron density is.

(03:01:54)
So then you give it an unknown pocket. You pour in noise and you say, right, produce me electron density, it produces electron density that doesn’t look ridiculous. And what we did in this case is we produce electron density that maximizes the electrostatic potential, so the stickiness, but minimizes what we call the steric hindrance. So the overlaps, so it’s repulsive. So make the perfect fit. And then we then use kind of like a ChatGPT type thing to turn that electron density into what’s called a smile. A smile string is a way of representing a molecule in letters. And then we can then-
Lex Fridman
(03:02:32)
So it just generates them then.
Lee Cronin
(03:02:34)
Just generates them. And then the other thing is then we bung that into the computer and then it just makes it.
Lex Fridman
(03:02:39)
Yeah, the computer being the thing that right… To generate-
Lee Cronin
(03:02:40)
The robot we’ve got that can basically just do chemistry. So we’ve kind of got this end-to-end drug discovery machine where you can say, “Oh, you want to bind to this active site, here you go.” I mean it is a bit leaky and things kind of break, but it is the proof of principle.
Lex Fridman
(03:02:56)
But were the hallucinations, are those still accurate?
Lee Cronin
(03:03:01)
Well the hallucinations are really great in this case, because in the case of a large language model, the hallucinations just make everything up. It doesn’t just make everything up, but it gives you an output that you are plausibly comfortable with and thinks you’re doing probabilistically. The problem on these tron density models is it’s very expensive to solve a shredding equation going up to many heavy atoms and large molecules. And so we wondered if we trained the system on up to nine heavy atoms, whether it would go beyond nine and it did, It started to generate molecules for 12. No problem. They look pretty good. And I was like, well this hallucination I will take for free. Thank you very much.

(03:03:42)
Because it just basically… This is a case where interpolation extrapolation worked relatively well. And we were able to generate the really good molecules. And then what we were able to do here is, and this is a really good point and what I was trying to say earlier, that we were able to generate new molecules, from the known set, that would bind to the host. So a new guest would bind. Were these truly novel? Not really because they were constrained by the host. Were they new to us? Yes. So I do, well understand… I can concede that machine learning systems, artificial intelligence systems can generate new entities, but how novel are they? It remains to be seen.
Lex Fridman
(03:04:32)
And how novel the things that humans generate is also difficult to quantify. They seem novel.
Lee Cronin
(03:04:40)
That’s what a lot of people say. So the way to really get to genuine novelty, and assembly theory shows you the way, is to have different causal chains overlap. And this really, really resonates with the time is fundamental argument. And if you are bringing together a couple of objects with different initial conditions coming together, when they interact, the more different their histories, the more novelty they generate in time going forward. And so it could be that genuine novelty is basically about mix it up a little. And the human brain is able to mix it up a little little, and all that stimulus comes from the environment. But all I think I’m saying is the universe is deterministic going back in time. Non-deterministic going forward in time. Because the universe is too big in the future to contain in the present. Therefore these collisions of known things generate unknown things, that then become part of your data set and don’t appear weird. That’s how we give ourselves comfort. The past looks consistent with this initial condition hypothesis, but actually we’re generating more and more novelty. And that’s how it works. Simple.
Lex Fridman
(03:05:58)
So it’s hard to quantify novelty looking backwards. I mean the present and the future at the novelty generators.
Lee Cronin
(03:06:05)
But I like this whole idea of mining novelty. I think it is going to reveal why the limitations of current AI is a bit like a printing press. Everyone thought that when the printing press came that writing books is going to be terrible, that you had evil spirits and all this. They were just books.
Lex Fridman
(03:06:26)
And same with AI. But I think just the scale you can achieve in terms of impact with AI systems is pretty nerve wracking.
Lee Cronin
(03:06:35)
But that’s what the big companies want you to think.
Lex Fridman
(03:06:39)
But not in terms of destroy all humans. But you can have major consequences in the way social media has had major consequences, both positive and negative. And so you have to think about it and worry about it. But yeah, people that fear monger…
Lee Cronin
(03:06:55)
My pet theory for this, you want to know?
Lex Fridman
(03:06:58)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(03:06:59)
Is I think that a lot… And maybe I’m being… And I really do respect a lot of the people out there who are trying to have discourse about the positive future. So open AI guys, meta guys and all this. What I wonder if they’re trying to cover up for the fact that social media has had a pretty disastrous effect at some level, and they’re just trying to say, “Oh yeah, we should do this.” Covering up for the fact that we have got some problems with teenagers, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and all this stuff, and maybe they’re just overreacting now. It’s like, “Oh yeah, sorry, we made the bubonic plate and gave it to you all and you’re all dying.” And “Oh yeah, but look at this over here it’s even worse.”
Lex Fridman
(03:07:40)
Yeah, there’s a little bit of that. But there’s also not enough celebration of the positive impact that all of these technologies have had. We tend to focus on the negative and tend to forget that. In part because it’s hard to measure. It is very hard to measure the positive impact social media had on the world.
Lee Cronin
(03:07:58)
Yeah, I agree. But what I worry about right now is I do care about the ethics of what we’re doing. And one of the reasons why I’m so open about the things we’re trying to do in the lab, make life look at intelligence, all this, so people say, what are the consequences of this? And you say, what are the consequences of not doing it? And I think that what worries me right now in the present is lack of authenticated users and authenticated data and-
Lex Fridman
(03:08:25)
Human users.
Lee Cronin
(03:08:26)
Yeah, human.
Lex Fridman
(03:08:28)
I still think that there will be AI agents that appear to be conscious, but they would have to be also authenticated and labeled as such. There’s too much value in that. Like friendships with AI systems. There’s too much meaningful human experiences to have with the AI systems that I just…
Lee Cronin
(03:08:48)
But that’s like a tool, right? It’s a bit like a meditation tool, right?
Lex Fridman
(03:08:50)
Sure.
Lee Cronin
(03:08:50)
Some people have a meditation tool, it makes them feel better. But I’m not sure you can ascribe sentience and legal rights to a chatbot that makes you feel less lonely.
Lex Fridman
(03:09:00)
Sentience, yes. I think legal rights, no. I think it’s the same. You can have a really deep, meaningful relationship with a dog.
Lee Cronin
(03:09:08)
Well the dog is sentient.
Lex Fridman
(03:09:10)
Yes.
Lee Cronin
(03:09:12)
The chatbots right now, using the technology we use, it’s not going to be sentient.

God

Lex Fridman
(03:09:16)
This is going to be a fun continued conversation on Twitter that I look forward to. Since you’ve had also from another place some debates that were inspired by the assembly theory paper, let me ask you about God. Is there any room for notions of God in assembly theory? Of God.
Lee Cronin
(03:09:42)
Yeah. I don’t know what God is a… I mean, so God exists in our mind created by selection. So the human beings have created the concept of God in the same way that human beings have created the concept of super intelligence.
Lex Fridman
(03:09:57)
Sure, but does it mean, does it not… It still could mean that that’s a projection from the real world where we’re just assigning words and concepts to a thing that is fundamental to the real world. That there is something out there that is a creative force underlying the universe.
Lee Cronin
(03:10:22)
I think the universe… There is a creative force in the universe, but I don’t think it’s sentient. So I do not understand the universe. So who am I to say that God doesn’t exist? I am an atheist, but I’m not an angry atheist. There’s some people I know that are angry atheists and say-
Lex Fridman
(03:10:49)
Cranky.
Lee Cronin
(03:10:50)
Say that religious people are stupid. I don’t think that’s the case. I have faith in some things. I mean when I was a kid I was like, I need to know what the charge of electron is. And I was like, I can’t measure the charge on electron. I just gave up and had faith. Okay, you know, resistors worked. So when it comes to… I want to know why the universe is growing in the future and what humanity is going to become. And I’ve seen that the acquisition of knowledge via the generation of novelty to produce technology has uniformly made humans’ lives better. I would love to continue that tradition.
Lex Fridman
(03:11:31)
You said that there’s that creative force. Do you think, just to think on that point, do you think there’s a creative force? Is there like a thing, like a driver that’s creating stuff?
Lee Cronin
(03:11:45)
Yeah, so I think that…
Lex Fridman
(03:11:48)
And where? What is it? Can you describe it mathematically?
Lee Cronin
(03:11:51)
Well, I think selection. I think selection.
Lex Fridman
(03:11:53)
Selection is the force.
Lee Cronin
(03:11:54)
Selection is the force in the universe. It creates novelty.
Lex Fridman
(03:11:58)
So is selection somehow fundamental? Like what…
Lee Cronin
(03:12:03)
Yeah, I think persistence of objects that could decay into nothing through operations that maintain that structure. I mean, think about it. It’s amazing that things exist at all. That we’re just not a big commentorial mess.
Lex Fridman
(03:12:17)
Yes.
Lee Cronin
(03:12:18)
So the fact that-
Lex Fridman
(03:12:21)
And exist. A thing that exists persist in time.
Lee Cronin
(03:12:23)
Yeah. Let’s think, maybe the universe is actually in the present. The things… Everything that can exist in the present does exist.
Lex Fridman
(03:12:39)
Well that would mean it’s deterministic, right?
Lee Cronin
(03:12:42)
I think the universes might. So the universe started super small. The past was deterministic, there wasn’t much going on. And it was able to mine mine, mine, mine, mine. And so the process is somehow generating universes basically… I’m trying to put this into words.
Lex Fridman
(03:13:02)
Did you just say there’s no free will though?
Lee Cronin
(03:13:04)
No, I didn’t say that.
Lex Fridman
(03:13:05)
As if-
Lee Cronin
(03:13:06)
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Lex Fridman
(03:13:06)
-it can exist.
Lee Cronin
(03:13:07)
I said there is free will. I’m saying that free will occurs at the boundary between the-
Lex Fridman
(03:13:17)
The past and the future?
Lee Cronin
(03:13:19)
The past and the future.
Lex Fridman
(03:13:20)
Yeah, I got you. But everything that can exist does exist.
Lee Cronin
(03:13:25)
So everything that’s possible to exist at this… So no, I’m really pulling this…
Lex Fridman
(03:13:30)
There’s a lot of loaded words there. There’s a time element loaded into that statement.
Lee Cronin
(03:13:36)
I think that the universe is able to do what it can in the present, right?
Lex Fridman
(03:13:40)
Yeah.
Lee Cronin
(03:13:40)
And then I think in the future there are other things that could be possible. We can imagine lots of things, but they don’t all happen.
Lex Fridman
(03:13:45)
Sure.
Lee Cronin
(03:13:46)
So what-
Lex Fridman
(03:13:46)
So that’s where-
Lee Cronin
(03:13:47)
So that’s what I guess I’m getting to.
Lex Fridman
(03:13:49)
-you sneak in free will right there.
Lee Cronin
(03:13:50)
Yeah. So I guess what I’m saying is what exists is a convolution of the past with the present, and the free will going into the future.
Lex Fridman
(03:14:00)
Well, we could still imagine stuff. Right? We can imagine stuff that will never happen.
Lee Cronin
(03:14:04)
And it’s amazing force. Because this is the most important thing that we don’t understand. Is our imaginations can actually change the future in a tangible way. Which is what the initial conditions and physics cannot predict. Your imagination has a causal consequence in the future.
Lex Fridman
(03:14:25)
Isn’t that weird to you?
Lee Cronin
(03:14:26)
Yeah. It breaks the laws of physics as we know them right now.
Lex Fridman
(03:14:37)
So you think the imagination has a causal effect on the future?
Lee Cronin
(03:14:41)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(03:14:42)
But it does exist in there in the head.
Lee Cronin
(03:14:45)
It does, but-
Lex Fridman
(03:14:45)
There must be a lot of power in whatever’s going on. There could be a lot of power, whatever’s going on in there.
Lee Cronin
(03:14:50)
If we then go back to the initial conditions, and that is simply not possible that can happen. But if we go into a universe where we accept that there is a finite ability to represent numbers. And you have rounding… Well not rounding errors, you have sum… What happens, your ability to make decisions, imagine and do stuff is that that interface between the certain and the uncertain. It’s not as Yashar was saying to me, “Randomness goes and you just randomly do random stuff.” It is that you are set free a little on your trajectory. Free will is about being able to explore on this narrow trajectory, that allows you to build… You have a choice about what you build. Or that choice is you interacting with a future in the present.
Lex Fridman
(03:15:39)
What to you is most beautiful about this whole thing? The universe?
Lee Cronin
(03:15:46)
The fact it seems to be very undecided, very open. The fact that every time I think I’m getting towards an answer to a question, there are so many more questions that make the chase.
Lex Fridman
(03:16:03)
Do you hate that it’s going to be over at some point for you?
Lee Cronin
(03:16:06)
No. Well for me. I think if you think about it, is it over for Newton now? Newton has had causal consequences in the future. We discuss him all the time,
Lex Fridman
(03:16:18)
His ideas, but not the person.
Lee Cronin
(03:16:21)
The person just had a lot of causal power when he was alive. But oh my God, one of the things I want to do is leave as many Easter eggs in the future when I’m gone to go, “Oh, that’s cool.”
Lex Fridman
(03:16:30)
Would you be very upset if somebody made a good large language model that’s fine tuned to Lee Cronin?
Lee Cronin
(03:16:37)
It would be quite boring. Because I mean, I…
Lex Fridman
(03:16:40)
No novelty generation?
Lee Cronin
(03:16:42)
I mean if it’s a faithful representation of what I’ve done in my life, that’s great. That’s an interesting artifact. But I think the most interesting thing about knowing each other is we don’t know what we’re going to do next.
Lex Fridman
(03:16:54)
Sure. Sure.
Lee Cronin
(03:16:57)
I mean within some constraints I’ve got, I can predict some things about you. You can predict some things about me. But we can’t predict everything.
Lex Fridman
(03:17:04)
Everything.
Lee Cronin
(03:17:05)
And it’s because we can’t predict everything is why we’re exciting to come back and discuss and see. So yeah, I’m happy that it’ll be interesting that some things that I’ve done can be captured, but I’m pretty sure that my angle on mining novelty for the future will not be captured.
Lex Fridman
(03:17:28)
Yeah. Yeah. So that’s what life is, is just some novelty generation and then you’re done. Each one of us just generally a little bit. Or have the capacity to at least.
Lee Cronin
(03:17:43)
I think life is a selection produces life. And life affects a universe. Universes with life in them are materially, physically, fundamentally different than universes without life. And that’s super interesting. And I have no beginnings of understanding. I think maybe this is in a thousand years, there’ll be a new discipline. And the humans will be like, “Yeah, of course. This is how it all works.” Right?
Lex Fridman
(03:18:10)
In retrospect, it’ll all be obvious I think.
Lee Cronin
(03:18:13)
I think assembly theory is obvious, that’s why a lot of people got angry. They were like, “Oh my God, this is such nonsense.” And like, “Oh, actually it’s not quite.” But the writing’s really bad.
Lex Fridman
(03:18:25)
Well, I can’t wait to see where it evolves, Lee. And I am glad I get to exist in this universe with you. You’re a fascinating human. This is always a pleasure. I hope to talk to you many more times. And I’m a huge fan of just watching you create stuff in this world. And thank you for talking today.
Lee Cronin
(03:18:44)
It’s a pleasure as always, Lex. Thanks for having me on.
Lex Fridman
(03:18:47)
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Lee Cronin. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, let me leave you with some words from Carl Sagan. We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions, and the depth of our answers. Our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good. Thank you for listening. And hope to see you next time.

Transcript for Lisa Randall: Dark Matter, Theoretical Physics, and Extinction Events | Lex Fridman Podcast #403

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #403 with Lisa Randall.
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Table of Contents

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Introduction

Lex Fridman
(00:00:00)
The following is a conversation with Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Harvard. Her work involves improving our understanding of particle physics, supersymmetry, baryogenesis, cosmological inflation, and dark matter.

(00:00:15)
This is the Lex Friedman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. Now, dear friends, here’s Lisa Randall.

Dark matter


(00:00:24)
One of the things you work on and write about is dark matter. We can’t see it, but there’s a lot of it in the universe. You also end one of your books with a Beatles song quote, “‘Got to be good-looking because he’s so hard to see.” What is dark matter? How should we think about it given that we can’t see it? How should we visualize it in our mind’s eye?
Lisa Randall
(00:00:47)
I think one of the really important things that physics teaches you is just our limitations, but also our abilities. The fact that we can deduce the existence of something that we don’t directly see is really a tribute to people that we can do that. It’s also something that tells you, you can’t overly rely on your direct senses. If you just relied on just what you see directly, you would miss so much of what’s happening in the world.

(00:01:15)
We can generalize this, but just for now to focus on dark matter, it’s something we know is there, and it’s not just one way we know it’s there. In my book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, I talk about the many different ways. There’s eight or nine that we deduce not just the existence of dark matter, but how much is there, and they all agree.

(00:01:36)
Now, how do we know it’s there? Because of its gravitational force. Individually, a particle doesn’t have such a big gravitational force. In fact, gravity is an extremely weak force compared to other forces we know about in nature, but there’s a lot of dark matter out there. It carries a lot of energy. Five times the amount of energy as the matter. We know that’s in atoms, et cetera.

(00:02:00)
You can ask, how should we think about it? It’s just another form of matter that doesn’t interact with light, or at least as far as we know. It interacts gravitationally, it clumps, it forms galaxies, but it doesn’t interact with light, which means we just don’t see it. Most of our detection, before gravitational wave detectors, we only saw things because of their interactions with light in some sense.
Lex Fridman
(00:02:25)
In theory, it behaves just like any other matter, it just doesn’t interact with light.
Lisa Randall
(00:02:30)
When we say it interacts just like any other form of matter, we have to be careful because gravitationally, it interacts like other forms of matter, but it doesn’t experience electromagnetism, which is why it has a different distribution.

(00:02:44)
In our galaxy, it’s roughly spherical unless it has its own interactions, that’s another story. We know that it’s roughly spherical, whereas ordinary matter can radiate and clumps into a disk. That’s why we see the Milky Way disk. On large scales, in some sense, yes, all the matter is similar in some sense.

(00:03:06)
In fact, dark matter is in some sense more important because it can collapse more readily than ordinary matter because ordinary matter has radiative forces, which makes it hard to collapse on small scales. Actually it’s dark matter that drives galaxy formation and then ordinary matter comes along with it.

(00:03:30)
There’s also just more of it, and because there’s more of it can start collapsing sooner. That is to say the energy density in dark matter dominates over radiation earlier than you would if you just had an ordinary matter.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:43)
It’s part of the story of the origin of the galaxy, part of the story of the end of the galaxy, and part of the story of all the various interactions throughout.
Lisa Randall
(00:03:50)
Exactly. In my book, I make jokes about, it’s like when we think about a building, we think about the architect, we think about the high level, but we forget about all the workers that did all the grunt work. In fact, dark matter was really important in the formation of our universe, and we forget that sometimes.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:07)
That’s a metaphor on top of a metaphor. Okay. The unheard voices that do the actual work.
Lisa Randall
(00:04:16)
Exactly. No, but it is a metaphor, but it also captures something because the fact is we don’t directly see it, so we forget it’s there or we don’t understand it’s there, or we think it’s not. The fact that we don’t see it makes it no less legitimate, it just means that we have challenges in order to find out exactly what it is.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:35)
Yeah, but the things we cannot see that nevertheless have a gravitational interaction with the things we can’t see is at the layman level, it’s just mind-blowing.
Lisa Randall
(00:04:49)
It is and it isn’t because I think what it’s teaching us is that we’re human, the universe is what it is, and we’re trying to interact with that universe and discover what it is. We’ve discovered, amazing things.

(00:05:03)
In fact, I would say it’s more surprising that the matter that we know about is constitutes as big a fraction of the universe as it does. We’re limited, we’re human. The fact that we see 5% of the energy density of the universe, about one sixth of the energy density in matter, that’s remarkable. Why should that be? Anything could be out there, yet the universe that we see is a significant fraction.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:30)
Yeah, but a lot of our intuition, I think operates using visualizations in the mind.
Lisa Randall
(00:05:36)
That’s absolutely true. Certainly writing books, I realized also how many of our words are based on how we see the world, and that’s true. That’s actually one of the fantastic things about physics is that it teaches you how to go beyond your immediate intuition to develop intuitions that apply at different distances, different scales, different ways of thinking about things.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:57)
Yeah. How do you anthropomorphize dark matter?
Lisa Randall
(00:06:01)
I just did, I think. I made it the grunt workers.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:04)
Oh yeah, that’s good. You did. That’s why you get paid the big bucks and write the great books. Okay, you also write in that book about dark matter, having to do something with the extinction events, the extinction of the dinosaurs, which is a fascinating presentation of how everything is connected.

(00:06:28)
I guess the disturbances from the dark matter, they create gravitational disturbances in the Oort Cloud at the edge of our solar system, and then that increases the rate of asteroids hitting earth.
Lisa Randall
(00:06:42)
I want to be really clear, this was a speculative theory.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:44)
I love it, though.
Lisa Randall
(00:06:48)
I liked it too. We still don’t know for sure, but what we liked about it… Let me take a step back. We usually assume that dark matter, we being physicists, that it’s just one thing. It’s just basically non-interacting aside from gravity or very weakly interacting matter.

(00:07:11)
Again, we have to get outside this mindset of just humans and ask what else could be there. What we suggested is that there’s a fraction of dark matter, not all the dark matter, but some of the dark matter, maybe it has interactions of its own just the same way in our universe, we have lots of different types of matter. We have nuclei, we have electrons, we have neutrons, we have forces.

(00:07:35)
It’s not a simple model, the standard model, but it does have some basic ingredients, so maybe dark matter also has some interesting structure to it. Maybe there’s some small fraction. The interesting thing is that if some of the dark matter does radiate, and I like to call it dark light because it’s light that we don’t see, but dark matter would see. It could radiate that and then it could perhaps collapse into a disk the same way ordinary matter collapsed into the Milky Way disk.

(00:08:06)
It’s not all the dark matter, it’s a fraction, but it could conceivably be a very thin disk of dark matter, thin, dense disk of dark matter. The question is do these exist? People have done studies now to think about whether they can find them. It’s an interesting target, it’s something you can measure. By measuring the positions and velocities of stars, you can find out what the structure of the Milky Way is, but the fun proposal was that the solar system orbits around the galaxy.

(00:08:36)
As it does so, it goes a little bit up and down kind of horses on a carousel. The suggestion was every time it goes through, you have an enhanced probability that you would dislodge something from the edge of the solar system in something called the Oort Cloud. The idea was that at those times, you’re more likely to have these cataclysmic events such as the amazing one that actually caused the last extinction that we know of for sure.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:01)
It wasn’t so amazing for the dinosaurs.
Lisa Randall
(00:09:04)
Or for two thirds of the species on the planet.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:06)
But it gets amazing for humans. It wouldn’t be-
Lisa Randall
(00:09:08)
What really is amazing… I talk about this in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. It is just an amazing scientific story because it really is one of the real stories that combine together different fields of science. Geologists at the time or people thought that things happen slowly and this would be a cataclysmic event.

(00:09:27)
Also, I have to say if you think about it, it sounds like a story a five-year-old would make up. Maybe the dinosaurs were killed by some big rock that came and hit the earth, but then there really was a scientific story behind it. That’s also why I like the dark disk because there’s a scientific story behind it. As far-fetched as it might sound, you could actually go and look for the experimental consequences, for the observational consequences to test whether it’s true.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:51)
I wish you could know high-resolution details of where that asteroid came from, where in the Oort Cloud, why it happened, is it in fact because of dark matter? Just the full tracing back to the origin of the universe because humans seem to be somewhat special. It seems like so many fascinating events at all scales of physics had to happen for [inaudible 00:10:17].
Lisa Randall
(00:10:16)
I’m really, really glad you mentioned that because actually that was one of the main points of my book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. One of the reasons I wrote it was because I really think we are abusing the planet, we’re changing the planet way too quickly. Just like anything else, when you alter things, it’s good to think about the history of what it took to get here.

(00:10:34)
As you point out, it took many operations on many different scales. We had to have the formation of structure, the formation of galaxies, the formation of the solar system, the formation of our planet, the formation of humans. There’s so many steps that go into this. Humans in some part were the result of the fact that this big object hit the earth, made the dinosaurs go extinct, and mammals developed. It is an incredible story and yes, something else might come of it, but it won’t be us if we mess with it too much.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:05)
But it is on a grand scale, earth is a pretty resilient system. Can you just clarify, just fascinating, the shape of things. The shape of the Milky Way’s… Of the observable stuff is mostly flat. You said dark matter tends to be spherical, but a subset of that might be a flat disk.
Lisa Randall
(00:11:31)
You want to hear about the shape of things.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:34)
Yes, please.
Lisa Randall
(00:11:36)
Structure formed early on, and now our structure that we live in is… We know about the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way galaxy has the disk you can see in a dry dark place, that’s where stars and light is, but you can also measure in some ways the dark matter. We believe that dark matter is more or less spherically distributed. Like we said, there’s a lot of it, not necessarily in the disk, but just because it’s a sphere, there’s a lot of it sitting there.

(00:12:11)
The reason it doesn’t collapse as far as we know is that it can’t radiate the same way. Because it can radiate ordinary matter collapses, and this actually, because of conservation of angular momentum, it stays a disk and it doesn’t just collapse to the center. Our suggestion was that maybe there are some components of dark matter that also radiate.

(00:12:31)
Like I said, that’s far from proven. People have looked for a disk, they see some evidence of some disks of certain densities, but these are all questions that are worth asking. Basically if we can figure it out from existing measurements, why not try?
Lex Fridman
(00:12:44)
Okay, so not all dark matter is made the same.
Lisa Randall
(00:12:48)
That’s a possibility. We actually don’t know what dark matter is in the first place, we don’t know what most of it is, we don’t know what a fraction is. It’s hard to measure. Why is it hard to measure for exactly the reason you said earlier, we don’t see it. We want to think of possibilities for what it can be, especially if those give rise to some observational consequences. It’s a tough game because it’s not something that’s just there for the taking. You have to think about what it could be and how you might find it.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:16)
The way you detect it is gravitational effects on things we can see.
Lisa Randall
(00:13:22)
That would be the way you detect the type of dark matter. I’ve been talking about people have suggestions for other forms of dark matter. They could be particles called axions, they could be other types of particles, and then there are different ways of detecting it.

(00:13:34)
The most popular candidate for dark matter probably until pretty recently because they haven’t found it, is something called WIMPs, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, particles that have mass about the same as the Higgs boson mass, and it turns out then you would get about the right density of dark matter.

(00:13:52)
People really like that, of course, because it is connected to the standard model, the particles that we know about, and if it’s connected to that, we have a better chance of actually seeing it. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s also a better chance that you can rule it out because you can look for it. So far, no one has found it. We’re still looking for
Lex Fridman
(00:14:08)
Is that one of the hopes of the Large Hadron Collider?
Lisa Randall
(00:14:11)
That was originally one of the hopes of Large Hadron Collider. I’d say at this point, it would be very unlikely given what they’ve already accomplished, but there are these underground detectors, xenon detectors that look for dark matter coming in, and they are going to try to achieve a much stronger bound than exists today.
Lex Fridman
(00:14:35)
Just to take that tangent, looking back now, what’s the biggest, to you, insight to humanity that the LHC has been able to provide?
Lisa Randall
(00:14:47)
It’s interesting. It’s both a major victory. The Higgs boson was proposed 50 years ago, and it was discovered. The Higgs mechanism seemed to be the only way to explain elementary particle masses and it was right so on the one hand, it was a major victory. On the other hand, I’ve been in physics long enough to know it was also a cautionary tale in some sense because at the time I started out in physics, we had proposed something in the United States called the Superconducting Supercollider.

(00:15:15)
A lot of physicists, I’ll say particularly in Europe, but I’d say a lot of physicists were saying when that the Large Hadron Collider would have the energy reach necessary to discover what underlies the standard model. We don’t want to just discover the standard model, we want to know what the next step is.

(00:15:31)
I think here people were more cautious about that. They want to have a more comprehensive search that could get to higher energies, more events so that we could really more definitively rule it out. In that case, many people thought they knew what would be there. It happened to be a theory called supersymmetry. A lot of physicists thought it would be supersymmetry.

(00:15:51)
It’s one of the many factors I think that went into the fact that the Large Hadron Collider became the only machine in town, and the Superconducting Supercollider would’ve just been a much… If it had really had achieved what it was supposed to, would’ve been a much more robust test of the space.

(00:16:07)
I’d say for humanity, it’s both a tribute to the ability of discovery and the ability of really believing in things so that you have the confidence to go look for them, but it’s also a cautionary tale that you don’t want to assume things before they’ve been actually found. You want to believe in your theories, but you also want to question them at the same time in ways that you’re more likely to discover the truth.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:32)
It’s also an illustration of grand engineering efforts that humanity can take on and maybe a lesson that you could go even bigger.
Lisa Randall
(00:16:43)
I’m really glad you said that though too, because that’s absolutely true. It really is an impressive… It’s impressive in so many ways. It’s impressive technologically, it’s impressive at engineering level.

(00:16:55)
It’s also impressive that so many countries work together to do this. It wasn’t just one country. It was also impressive in that it was a long-term project that people committed to and made it happen. It is a demonstration that when people set their minds to things and they commit to it, that they can do something amazing.
Lex Fridman
(00:17:18)
Also in the United States, maybe a lesson that bureaucracy can slow things down to [inaudible 00:17:24].
Lisa Randall
(00:17:24)
Bureaucracy and politics.
Lex Fridman
(00:17:26)
Politics.
Lisa Randall
(00:17:27)
And economics. Many things can make them faster and make them slower.
Lex Fridman
(00:17:32)
Science is the way to make progress, politics is the way to slow that progress down. And here we are.
Lisa Randall
(00:17:39)
I don’t want to overstate that because without politics, the [inaudible 00:17:42] wouldn’t happen either.
Lex Fridman
(00:17:43)
You need broccoli.
Lisa Randall
(00:17:49)
Sometimes I do think… You’re not asking this question, but sometimes I do think when I think about some of these conflicts, sometimes it’s just good to have a project that people work on together. There were some efforts to do that in science too, to have Palestinians and Israelis work together, a project called Sesame. I think it’s not a bad idea when you can do that, when you can get… Forget the politics and just focus on some particular project. Sometimes that can work.
Lex Fridman
(00:18:25)
Some kind of forcing function, some kind of deadline that gets people to sit in a room together and you’re working on a thing. As part of that, you realize the common humanity, that you all have the same concerns, the same hopes, the same fears, that you are all human. That’s an accidental side effect of working together on a thing.
Lisa Randall
(00:18:45)
That’s absolutely true. It’s one of the reasons CERN was formed actually. It was post-World War II, and a lot of European physicists had actually left Europe and they wanted to see Europeans work together and rebuild, and it worked. They did. It’s true, I often think that, that one of the major problems is we just don’t meet enough people so that everyone… When they seem like the other, it’s more easy to forget their humanity. I think it is important to have these connections.

Extinction events

Lex Fridman
(00:19:16)
Given the complexity, all cosmological scales involved here that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, when you look out at the future of earth, do you worry about future extinction events?
Lisa Randall
(00:19:29)
I do think that we might be in the middle of an extinction right now if you define it by the number of species that are getting killed off. It’s subtle, but it’s a complex system. The way things respond to events is sometimes things evolve, sometimes animals just move to another place. The way we’ve developed the earth, it’s very hard for species just to move somewhere else.

(00:19:54)
We’re seeing that with people now, too. I know people are worried just about AI taking over, and that’s a totally different story. We just don’t think about the future very much. We think about what we’re doing now, and we certainly don’t think enough about all the animals that we’re destroying, all the things that are precursors to humans that we rely on.
Lex Fridman
(00:20:14)
It’s interesting to think whether the things that threaten us is the stuff we see that’s happening gradually or the stuff we don’t really see that’s going to happen all of a sudden. I sometimes think about what should we be worried about? It seems like with the asteroids or nuclear war, it could be stuff that just happens one day. When I say one day meaning over a span of a few days or a few months, but not on a scale of decades and centuries. We sometimes mostly talk about stuff that’s happening gradually, but we can be really surprised.
Lisa Randall
(00:20:57)
It’s actually really interesting. That was actually one of the reasons it took a while to determine what it was that it caused the last extinction because people did think at the time, many people thought that things were more gradual, and the idea of extinction was actually a novel concept at some point.

(00:21:14)
These aren’t predictable events necessarily. They’re only predictable on a grand scale, but sometimes they are. I think people were pretty aware that nuclear weapons were dangerous. I’m not sure people are as aware now as they were say, 20 or 30 years ago, and that certainly worries me. I have to say I was not as worried about AI as other people, but now I understand. It’s more that as soon as you create things that we lose control over, it’s scary.

(00:21:50)
The other thing that we’re learning from the events today is that it takes a few bad actors. It takes everyone to make things work well, it takes not that many things to make things go wrong. The issue with disease, we can find out what causes a disease, but to make things better is not necessarily that simple. Sometimes it is. But for things to be healthy, a lot of things have to work. For things to go wrong, only one thing has to go wrong. It’s amazing that we do it.

(00:22:19)
The same is true for democracy. For democracy to work, a lot of people have to believe in it. A few bad actors can destroy things sometimes. A lot of the things that we really rely on are delicate equilibrium situations. There is some robustness in the systems, we try to build in robustness, but a few extreme events can sometimes alter things. I think that’s what people are scared of today in many ways. They’re scared of it for democracy, they’re scared of it for peace, they’re scared of it for AI.

(00:22:51)
I think they’re not as scared as they should be about nuclear weapons, to be honest. I think that’s more serious danger than people realize. I think people are a little bit more scared about pandemics than they were before, but I still say they’re not super scared about it. So you’re right, there are these major events that can happen and we are setting things up so that they might happen, and we should be thinking about them. The question is who should be thinking about them? How should we be thinking about them? How do you make things happen on a global scale, because that’s really what we need.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:23)
It certainly shouldn’t be a source of division, it should be a source of grand collaboration probably.
Lisa Randall
(00:23:29)
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Lex Fridman
(00:23:30)
Yeah. I just wonder what it’d be like to be a dinosaur. It must have been beautiful to look at that asteroid enter the atmosphere. Until everything…. Man, that would be one of the things I would travel back in time to just to watch it.
Lisa Randall
(00:23:50)
That’s also one of the things that I think you probably could do with virtual reality. I don’t think you have to be there and get extinct.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:54)
To just experience it.
Lisa Randall
(00:23:55)
I think there’s something… It’s an event. You’re just watching. You’re not doing anything, you’re just looking at it, so maybe you could just recreate it.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:01)
I actually heard that there’s a nuclear weapon explosion experience in virtual reality that’s good to remind you about what it would feel like.
Lisa Randall
(00:24:14)
I have to say, I got an award from the Museum of Nuclear History and Technology in the Southwest, and I went to visit the museum, which turned out to be mostly a museum of nuclear weapons. The scary thing is that they look really cool.

(00:24:30)
It’s true that you have that, yes, this is scary, but you also have, this is cool feeling and I think we have to get around that because I think that yes, you can be in that, but I’m not sure that’s going to make people scared. Have they actually asked afterwards, are you more or less scared?
Lex Fridman
(00:24:50)
That’s a really good point. That’s a good summary of just humanity in general. We’re attracted to creating cool stuff, even though it can be dangerous.
Lisa Randall
(00:25:01)
Actually, that was the really interesting thing about visiting that museum, actually. It was very nice because I had a tour from people who had been working there in the Cold War and actually one or two people from the Manhattan Project. It was a very cool tour. You just realize just how just the thing itself gets you so excited.

(00:25:16)
I think that’s something sometimes these movies miss, just the thing itself. You’re not thinking about the overall consequences. In some ways it was like the early Silicon Valley. People were just thinking what if we did this? What if we did that? Not keeping track of what the peripheral consequences are. You definitely see that happening with AI now. I think that was the moral of the battle that just happened, that it’s just full speed ahead.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:43)
Which gives me a really great transition to another quote in your book. You write about the experience of facing the sublime in physics, and you quote Rainer Rilke. “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we’re so odd because it’s serenely disdains to annihilate us.” It’s pretty intense. It I think applies to nuclear weapons.
Lisa Randall
(00:26:14)
At a more mundane, perhaps level, I think it applies… It’s really interesting. One of the things that I found when I wrote these books is some people love certainty. Scientists, many revel in uncertainty. It’s not that you want to be uncertain, you want to solve it, but you’re at this edge where it’s really frustrating because you don’t really want to not know the answer, but of course, if you knew the answer, it would be done.

(00:26:41)
You’re always at this edge where you’re trying to sort things out and there is something scary. You don’t know if there’s going to be a solution, you don’t know if you’re going to find it. It’s not something that can destroy the earth, it’s just something that you do on your individual level. But then of course there are much bigger things like the ones you’re talking about where they could actually be dangerous. The stuff I do, I just want to be clear, I’m doing theoretical physics. Not very dangerous, but sometimes things end up having bigger consequences than you think.
Lex Fridman
(00:27:13)
Dangerous in a very pragmatic sense. Isn’t it still in part terrifying when you think of just the size of things like the size of dark matter, the power of this thing in terms of its potential gravitational effects, just cosmological objects of a black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Lisa Randall
(00:27:36)
This might be why I’m a physicist or why I differ from other people because I’m not such a big fan of humanity in some ways. Some ways I am, but the idea that we were everything would be really boring to me. I love the idea that there’s so much more out there, that there’s a bigger universe and there’s lots to discover and that we’re not all there is. Wouldn’t it be disappointing if we were all there is?
Lex Fridman
(00:27:57)
Yeah, and the full diversity of other stuff is pretty interesting.
Lisa Randall
(00:28:04)
We have no idea how much there is. We know what we can observe so far, so the idea that there’s other stuff out there that we yet have to figure out, it’s exciting.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:13)
Let me ask you an out there question. If you think of humans on earth, life on earth as this pocket of complexity that emerged and there’s a bunch of conditions that came to be, and there’s Darwinian evolution and however life originated, do you think it’s possible there’s some pockets of complexity of that sort inside dark matter that we can’t see?
Lisa Randall
(00:28:42)
That’s possible.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:47)
Chemistry and biology evolving in different ways.
Lisa Randall
(00:28:49)
That’s one of the reasons we suggest… It’s not the reason, but it would be true if there were the type of interactions we’d suggest, it would need more complex ones. We don’t know. I will say that the conditions that give rise to life and complexity, they’re complex, they’re unlikely. It’s not like there’s great odds that would happen, but there’s no reason to know that it doesn’t happen. It’s worth investigating are there other forces that exist in the dark matter sector? That’s exactly-
Lex Fridman
(00:29:20)
So the dark matter sector doesn’t have all the forces of the standard model of physics?
Lisa Randall
(00:29:26)
Right. As far as we know, it doesn’t have any. It might have it at some low level, but it could have its own forces, just like the dark matter might not experience our light. Maybe it has its light that we don’t experience.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:38)
So there could be other kinds of forces.
Lisa Randall
(00:29:41)
There could be other kinds of forces even within our sector that are too weak for us to have discovered so far or that exist at different scales than we know about. We detect what interacts strongly enough with our detectors to detect. It’s worth asking, and that’s one of the reasons we build big colliders to see are there other forces, other particles that exist say, at higher energies, at shorter distance scales than we’ve explored so far. It’s not just in the dark matter sector. Even in our sector, there could be a whole bunch of stuff we don’t yet know.

Particle physics

Lex Fridman
(00:30:17)
Maybe let’s zoom out and look at the standard model of particle physics. How does dark matter fit into it? First of all, what is it? Can you explain what the standard model is?
Lisa Randall
(00:30:28)
The standard model of particle physics is basically it tells us about nature’s most basic elements and their interactions. It’s the substructure as far as we understand it. If you look at atoms, we know they have nuclei and electrons, nuclei have protons and neutrons in them, protons and neutrons have particles called quarks that are held together by something called the strong force.

(00:30:54)
They interact through the strong force, the strong nuclear force. There’s something called the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism. Basically, all those particles and their interactions describe many, many things we understand. That’s the standard model. We now know about the Higgs boson, which is associated with how elementary particles get their mass. That piece of the puzzle has also been completed.

(00:31:20)
We also know that there are a weird array of masses of elementary particles. There’s not just the up and down quark, but there are heavier versions of the up and down quark. Charm and strange, top and bottom. There’s not just the electron, there’s a muon and a tau. There are particles called neutrinos, which are under intense study now, which are partnered with the leptons through the weak interactions.

(00:31:42)
We really do know these basic elements and we know the forces. When we’re doing particle physics experiments, we can usually even ignore gravity except in exceptional cases that we can talk about. Those are the basic elements in their interactions.

(00:31:58)
Dark matter stands outside that, it’s not interacting through those forces. When we look at the world around us, we don’t usually see the effects of dark matter. It’s because there’s so much of it that we do and it doesn’t have those forces that we know about. The standard model has worked spectacularly well. It’s been tested to a high degree of precision. People are still testing it.

(00:32:20)
One of the things we do as physicists is we actually want it to break down at some level, we’re looking for the precision measurement or the energy or whatever it will take where the standard model is no longer working. Not that it’s not working approximately, but we’re looking for the deviations. Those deviations are critical because they can tell us what underlies the standard model, which is what we really want to see next.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:45)
Where can you find the places where the standard model breaks down? What are the places you can see those tiny little deviations?
Lisa Randall
(00:32:53)
We don’t know yet, but we know the kinds of things you wouldn’t want to look for. One obvious place to look is at higher energy. We’re looking at the Large Hadron Collider, but we’d love to go beyond that. Higher energy means shorter distances and it means things that we just couldn’t produce before. E=mc², so if you have a heavy particle and you don’t have enough energy to make it, you’ll never see it. That’s one place.

(00:33:17)
The other place is precision measurements. The standard model has been tested exquisitely, so if it’s been tested 1%, you want to look at a 10th of a percent. There are some processes that we know shouldn’t even happen at all in the standard model or happen at very suppressed level, and those are other things that we look for. All of those things could indicate there’s something beyond what we know about, which of course would be very exciting.
Lex Fridman
(00:33:42)
When you just step back and look at the standard model, the quarks and all the different particles and neutrinos, isn’t it wild how this little system came to be and underpins everything we see?
Lisa Randall
(00:33:59)
Absolutely. That’s why we’d like to understand it better. We want to know is it part of some bigger sector? Why are these particles… Why do they have the masses they do? Why is the Higgs boson so light compared to the mass that could have had, which we might’ve even expected based on the principles of special relativity and quantum mechanics. That’s a really big question. Why are they what they are?
Lex Fridman
(00:34:21)
And they originate, there’s some mechanism that created the whole thing?
Lisa Randall
(00:34:24)
That’s one of the things we’re trying to study. Why is it what it is?
Lex Fridman
(00:34:29)
Even just the mechanism that creates stuff, the way a human being is created from a single cell. It’s like embryogenesis, the whole thing, you build up this thing. All of it, this whole thing comes to be from just like a [inaudible 00:34:47].
Lisa Randall
(00:34:46)
Don’t forget it is interacting with the environment.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:49)
For sure. Okay, right, right, right.
Lisa Randall
(00:34:51)
It’s important.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:53)
That’s a really good question is how much of it is the environment? Is it just the environment acting on a set of constraints? How much of it is just the information in the DNA or any information? How much is it in the initial conditions of the universe versus some other thing acting on it?
Lisa Randall
(00:35:14)
These are big questions. These are big questions in pretty much every field. For the universe, we do consider it… It’s everything there is by definition. But people now think about it. Is it one of many universes? Of course it’s a misnomer, but could there be other places where there are self-contained gravitational systems that we don’t even interact with? Those are really important questions, and the only way we’re going to answer them is we go back as far as we can. We try to think theoretically, and we try to think about observational consequences. That’s all we can do.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:49)
One interesting way to explore the standard model is to look at your fun, nuanced disagreement with Carlo Rovelli. When you talked about him writing in his book, “Electrons don’t always exist. They exist when they interact. They materialize in a place when they collide with something else.” You wrote that… I’ll just read the whole thing because it’s interesting.

(00:36:12)
“Stocks may not achieve a precise value until they’re traded, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approximate their worth until they change hands. Similarly, electrons might not have definite properties, but they do exist. It’s true that the electron doesn’t exist as a classical object with definite position until the position is measured. But something was there – which physicists use a wave function to describe.” It’s a fascinating nuanced disagreement. Do electrons always exist or not? Does a tree fall in the forest if nobody’s there to see it?
Lisa Randall
(00:36:48)
I like to think of the universe as being out there, whether or not… It would be really weird if the only time things came into existence was when I saw them or I measured them.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:57)
There’s a lot of weird stuff in the works.
Lisa Randall
(00:36:58)
I could believe that the Middle East doesn’t exist because I’m not there now. That would be kind of ridiculous, I think we would all agree on that. I think there’s only so much that we can attribute to our own powers of seeing. The whole system doesn’t come into being because I’m measuring it. What is weird, and this isn’t even a disagreement about the standard model, this is a disagreement about how you interpret quantum mechanics.

(00:37:22)
I would say that those wave functions are real. One of the things that don’t forget that particle physics does that quantum field theory says is that electrons can be created and destroyed. It’s not that every electron has to be in the universe. That’s what happens at colliders, particles get created and destroyed, but that doesn’t mean that if I have electron in an atom, it’s not there. It’s certainly there, and we know about it. Its charge is there.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:47)
Physics is a kind of way to see the world. At the bottom, what’s the bottom turtle? Do you have a sense that there’s a bottom reality that we’re trying to approximate with physics?
Lisa Randall
(00:38:01)
I think we always have in our head maybe that we’d like to find that, but I have to… I might not seem so, but I think I’m more humble than a lot of physicists. I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get to that bottom level, but I do think we’re going to keep penetrating different layers and get further.
Lex Fridman
(00:38:16)
I just wonder how far away we are.
Lisa Randall
(00:38:20)
We all wonder that. What’s even the measure of how far away we are. One way you can measure it is just by our everyday lives. In terms of our everyday lives, we’ve measured everything. In terms of what underlies it. There’s a lot more to see. Part of it has to do with how far we think we can go. It might be that the nature of reality changes so much that even these terms are different. Maybe the notion of distance itself might break down at some point.
Lex Fridman
(00:38:49)
Also to push back on the we’ve measured everything, maybe there’s stuff we haven’t even considered is measurable. For example, consciousness. There might be stuff, just like you said, forces unseen, undetected.
Lisa Randall
(00:39:03)
It’s an interesting thing, and this is often a confusion that happens. There’s the fundamental stuff underlying it, and then there’s the higher levels, what we’ll call an effective theory at some level. We’re not always working… When I throw a ball, I don’t tell you where every atom is. I tell you there’s a ball.

(00:39:22)
There might be different layers of reality that are built in terms of the matter that we know about in terms of the stuff we know about that. When I say we’ve measured everything, I say that with a grain of salt. I mean we’ve measured everything about the standard model. There’s lots of phenomena that we don’t understand, but often there are complex phenomena that will be given in terms of the fundamental ingredients that we know about.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:47)
That is an interesting question because yes, there’s phenomena that are at the higher level of abstractions that emerge, but maybe with consciousness, there is far out people that think that consciousness is panpsychus, that there’s going to be almost like a fundamental force of physics. That’s consciousness that permeates all that matter.
Lisa Randall
(00:40:10)
Usually when you have a crazy… Sorry, when you have a far out theory, the thing you do is you test all the possibilities within the constructs that exist. You don’t just jump to the most far out possibility. You can do that, but then to see if it’s true, you either have to find evidence of it or you have to show that it’s not possible without that, and we’re very far from that.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:32)
I think one of the criticisms of your theory on the dinosaurs was that it requires, if I remember correctly, for dark matter to be weirder than it already is. I think you had a clever response to that. Can you remind…
Lisa Randall
(00:40:46)
I’m not sure I remember what I said then, but we have no idea how weird dark matter is. It’s based on everyone thinking they know what dark matter is. Weirder than it already is, it’s not already anything. We don’t know what it is, so there’s no normalization here.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:59)
Do we know if dark matter varies in density?
Lisa Randall
(00:41:05)
It just certainly does in the universe, just like… For example, there’s more dark matter in galaxies than there’s between galaxies. It clumps. It’s matter, so it’s distributed like matter. It is matter.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:18)
It does clump, but the full details of how it clumps and the complexity of the clumping…
Lisa Randall
(00:41:25)
It’s understood pretty well. People do simulations… Where people are always looking for things, including us as particle physics, it’s at small scales, are the deviations on small scales so that indicating other interactions or other processes or interactions with baryons. That is to say normal matter that we don’t understand. But on large scales, we have a pretty good understanding of dark matter distribution.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:50)
You were part of a recent debate on can science uncover reality. Let me ask you this question then, what do you think is the limits of science?
Lisa Randall
(00:42:00)
I’m smart enough to know that I have no idea. Also it’s not even clear what science means because there’s the science that we do, which is particle physics. We try to find fundamental things and figure out what their effects are. There’s science like biology where at a higher level, the kind of questions you ask are different, the kind of measurements are different.

(00:42:21)
The kind of science that’s going to happen in the more numerical age or even AI, what does it mean to answer a question? Does it mean that we can predict it? Does it mean that we can reproduce it? I think we’re coming up against the definition of what we mean by science as human beings. In terms of the science that we can do, I don’t think we’ll know it until we get there. We’re trying to solve hard problems and we’ve made progress.

(00:42:50)
If you think of how much science has advanced in the last century or century and a half, it’s incredible. We didn’t even know the universe was expanding at the beginning of the 20th century. We didn’t know about quantum mechanics at the beginning of the century, we didn’t know about special relativity. That’s a lot in a relatively short time, depending on how you think of time. I think it would be premature to say we know limitations.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:14)
At various points throughout the history, we thought we solved everything or at least various people declared-
Lisa Randall
(00:43:20)
[inaudible 00:43:20] various people. Exactly.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:21)
Declared that we’ve solved everything. This also a good place to… Maybe could you describe the difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches to theoretical physics that you talked about in the book?
Lisa Randall
(00:43:33)
You could try to jump in and say I have a theory that I think is so perfect that I can predict everything from it or at least predict some salient features from it.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:46)
Mm-hmm. That’s top-down.
Lisa Randall
(00:43:47)
That would be a top-down. Bottom-up is more like the questions we just asked. Why are masses what they are? We measure things. We want to put them together. Usually a good approach is to combine the two. If you ask a very specific question but combine it with the methods of knowing that there could be a fundamental theory underlying it, sometimes you make progress.

(00:44:09)
The community tends to get segmented or fragmented into people who do one or the other, but there are definitely times… Some of my best collaborations with people who are more top-down than I am, so that we come up with interesting ideas that we wouldn’t have thought of if either one of us was working individually.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:25)
Would you say the truly big leaps happened top-down? Like Einstein?
Lisa Randall
(00:44:30)
Einstein was not a top-down person in the beginning. Special relativity was very much him thinking about… They were thought experiments, but he was very much… The original theory about relativity is something like on the nature of electromagnetism. He was trying to understand how Maxwell’s laws could make sense when they seemed to have different symmetries than what we had thought they were.

(00:44:54)
He was very much a bottom-up person, and in fact, he resisted top-down for a long time. Then when he tried to do the theory of general relativity or the general theory of relativity, whichever you want to call it, incorporating gravity into the system when you need some feedback, then he was helped by a mathematician who had developed some differential geometry and helped him figure out how to write down that.

(00:45:16)
After that, he thought top-down was the way to go, but he actually didn’t make that much progress. I think it’s naive to think it was just one or the other. In fact, a lot of people who made real progress were rooted in actual measurements.

Physics vs mathematics

Lex Fridman
(00:45:31)
Speaking of mathematicians, what do you is the difference, you’ve had a bit of foot in both, between physics and mathematics in the way it helps us understand the world?
Lisa Randall
(00:45:41)
To be frank, there’s a lot more overlap in physics and math. I think that has been… Maybe not more, but there’s certainly a lot. I think, again, the kinds of questions you’re asking are usually different. Mathematicians like the structure itself, physicists are trying to concentrate on, to some extent, on the consequences for the world. But there is a lot of overlap.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:04)
The string theory is an example. There’s certain theories where there’s a certain mathematical beauty to it.
Lisa Randall
(00:46:12)
There’s also some really cool ideas that you get in particle physics where you can describe what’s going on and connect it to other ideas. That’s also really beautiful. I think basically insights can be beautiful. They might seem simple, and sometimes they genuinely are, and sometimes they’re built on a whole system that you have to understand before. If you actually saw Einstein’s equations written out in components, if you wouldn’t think it’s so beautiful. If you write in a compact way, it looks nice.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:43)
What do you think about the successes and the failures of string theory? To what degree do you think it succeeded, to what degrees it not succeeded yet or has failed?
Lisa Randall
(00:46:54)
I think to talk about any science in terms of success and failure often misses the point because there’s not some absolute thing. I do think that string theorists were a bit overly ambitious… Not overly ambitious, but a little bit overly arrogant in the beginning, thinking they could solve many problems that they weren’t going to solve.

(00:47:14)
That’s not to say the methods and advances in strength theory don’t exist, but they certainly weren’t able to immediately solve all the problems they thought they could solve. It has given us tools, it has given us some insights, but it becomes almost a sociological question of how much it should be one or the other.

(00:47:35)
I do think that you can get caught up in the problems themselves, and sometimes you can get caught up in the methods and just do other examples. The real physics insights often come from people who are thinking about physics as well as math.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:49)
Because you mentioned AI, is there hope that AI might be able to help find some interesting insights? Another way to ask this question is how special are humans that we’re able to discover novel insights about the world?
Lisa Randall
(00:48:09)
That’s a great question, and it depends on what kind of insights and what we’re going to find that out. Because it’s hard to think about something that doesn’t quite exist yet, I could just think about something, take a step back. It’s a little bit like I’m trying understand four dimensions so you go back to three dimensions. Go to something you can imagine.

(00:48:31)
You can say a lot of the things in a very different level about the internet. You could say has the internet helped do things? It definitely took on a life of its own in some sense, but it’s also something that we’re able to tame. I know that I, myself wouldn’t have been able to write books if the internet didn’t exist because I wouldn’t have had the time to go to the library and look everything up. It helped me enormously.

(00:48:57)
In some sense, AI could be that. In a very nice world, it could be a tool that helps us go a step further than we would and a lot more efficiently. It’s already done that to some extent. Or it could be like the parts of the internet that we can control that are ruining politics or whatever. There’s certainly a lot of indications that can do that. Then there are even bigger things that people speculate about AI being able to do its own things, but in terms of actually figuring things out, we’re in the early stages.
Lex Fridman
(00:49:33)
Yeah, there’s several directions here. One is on the theorem prover side, Wolfram Alpha where everything’s much more precise, and we have large language model type of stuff. One of the limitations of those is it seems to come up with convincing looking things, which we don’t know if it’s true or not, and that’s a big problem for physics.
Lisa Randall
(00:49:54)
Large language models are more or less generalizations of stuff that we have. There’s still breakthroughs in AI waiting to happen, and maybe they are happening and maybe they’ll be good, maybe not, but that’s not quite the same. Maybe in some cases, it’s just pattern recognition that leads to important things, but sometimes it could be something more insightful than that that I can’t even put my finger on.

(00:50:21)
It forces us to… We don’t really understand how smart we are. We don’t understand how we think about things all that well, actually. But one thing is true though, we are a lot more efficient right now than computers and coming up with things, we require a lot less energy to do that. If computers figure out how to do that, then it’s going to be at a totally different ball game.

(00:50:42)
Here are clearly kinds of connections that we don’t know how we’re making, but we are making them. That’s going to be interesting. I say we’re in early stages, but this is changing very rapidly. Right now, I don’t think that it’s actually discovered new laws of physics, but could it in the future? Maybe it can.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:06)
It will raise big questions about what is special about humans that we don’t quite appreciate. There could be things that are like that leap of insight that happens, truly novel ideas, that could potentially be very difficult to do.
Lisa Randall
(00:51:26)
There are abstract questions like that. There’s also questions of how is it that we can address to some extent, how will AI be used in the context of the world we live in? Which is based on at least our country’s based on capitalism in a certain political system. How will global politics deal with it? How will our capitalist system deal with it? What will be the things that we focus on doing with it? How much will researchers get control of it to be able to ask different sorts of questions?

(00:51:58)
While it was starting out, people were doing these kinds of toy problems, but what will it actually be applied to and what will it be optimized to do? There’s a lot of questions out there that it’s really important we start addressing.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:11)
What to you is the most beautiful unsolved problem in physics and cosmology, which is really exciting if we can unlock the mystery of in the next few decades?
Lisa Randall
(00:52:30)
Is it what’s the most beautiful unsolved problem, or what is the most beautiful unsolved problem I think we can make progress on?
Lex Fridman
(00:52:35)
Oh boy, we make progress on in the next few centuries.
Lisa Randall
(00:52:43)
Most of the big questions have to do with what underlies things, how things started, what’s at the base of it. There’s also just basic questions like that you asked earlier, how far will science take us? How much can we understand? There are questions like how we got here, what underlies it, are there.

(00:53:02)
Also, there’s really deep questions like what fraction are we actually seeing? If there are these other forces, if there is another way of seeing the world, are there universes beyond their own? If they’re so totally different, how do we even comprehend them? What would we even think about them? There’s a lot about trying to get beyond… It’s always just getting beyond our limited vision and limited experience and trying to see what underlies it, both at small scales and at large scales.

(00:53:35)
We just don’t know the answers. I’d like to think that we understand more about dark matter, about dark energy, about are there extra dimensions, things that we actually work on, but there’s probably a lot beyond what we work on that’s yet to be discovered.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:50)
Yeah, understanding the extra dimensions piece will be really interesting.
Lisa Randall
(00:53:55)
Totally. If it is how the universe went from higher dimensions to what we see, are the extra dimensions present everywhere? One of the really interesting pieces of physics we did that I talk about in my first book, Warped Passages, is finding out that there can be a higher dimension, but only locally. Do you think there’s a gravity of a lower dimension? It could be like only locally do we think we live in three dimensions. It could be higher dimensions is different.

(00:54:25)
That’s not actually the gravity we have, but there’s all sorts of phenomena that might be out there that we don’t know about. All sorts of evolution things, time dependence that we don’t know about. Of course, that’s from the point of view of particle physics, from the point of view of other kinds of physics, we’re just beginning, so who knows?
Lex Fridman
(00:54:40)
Yeah, if the physics changes throughout is not homogeneous throughout the universe, that’ll be weird.
Lisa Randall
(00:54:48)
I mean, for the observable universe, it’s the same. But beyond the observable universe, who knows?
Lex Fridman
(00:54:58)
You’ve had an exceptional career. What advice would you give to young people, maybe high school, college, on how to have a career they can be proud of and a life they can be proud of?
Lisa Randall
(00:55:10)
I think the weird thing about being a scientist or an academic in general is you have to believe really strongly what you do while questioning it all the time. That’s a hard balance to have. Sometimes it helps to collaborate with people, but to really believe that you could have good ideas at the same time, knowing they could all be wrong. That’s a tough tightrope to walk sometimes, but to really test them out.

(00:55:34)
The other thing is sometimes if you get too far buried, you look out and you think there’s so much out there. Sometimes it’s just good to bring it back home and just think okay, can I have as good idea as the person next to me rather than the greatest physicist who ever lived? Right now, like you said, I think there’s lots of big issues out there, and it’s hard to balance that.

(00:55:55)
Sometimes it’s hard to forget the role of physics, but I think Wilson said it really well when he said when they were building Fermilab, it was like this won’t defend the country, but it’ll make it worth defending. It’s just the idea that in all this chaos, it’s still important that we still make progress in these things. Sometimes when major world events are happening, it’s easy to forget that. I think those are important too. You don’t want to forget those, but to try to keep that balance because we don’t want to lose what it is that makes humans special.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:24)
That’s the big picture. Do you also lose yourself in the simple joy of puzzle solving?
Lisa Randall
(00:56:29)
Yeah. We all like solving puzzles. Actually one of the things that drives me in my research is the inconsistencies. When things don’t make sense, it really bugs me and it just will go into different directions to see how could these things fit together.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:46)
It bugs you, but that motivates you?
Lisa Randall
(00:56:48)
Yeah, totally.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:49)
Until it doesn’t. You have to resolve it.
Lisa Randall
(00:56:52)
I think I have this underlying belief that it should make sense, even though the world comes at you in many ways and tells you nothing should make sense, but if you believe that it makes sense and you look for underlying logic. I think that’s just good advice for everything to try to find why is it the way.

(00:57:08)
I talk about effective theory in my second book, Knocking On Heaven’s Door, a lot. It’s rather than ask the big questions, sometimes we just ask the questions about the immediate things that we can measure and like I said, we can sometimes tell one that we’ll fail, but we can have these effective theories. Sometimes I think when we approach these big questions, it’s good to do it from an effective theory point. Why do I find this satisfying? Why is the world we have the way it is?

(00:57:31)
We think things are beautiful that we live in. I’m not sure if we had different senses or different ways of looking at things, we wouldn’t necessarily find it beautiful. But I have to say, it is fantastic that no matter how many times I see a sunset, I will always find it beautiful. I don’t think I ever see a sunset as say whatever. It’s just always beautiful.

(00:57:54)
There are things that as humans, clearly resonate with us, but we were maybe evolved that way. But that’s about us. In terms of figuring out the universe, it’s amazing how far we’ve gotten. We have discovered many, many wonderful things, but there’s a lot more out there and I hope we have the opportunity to keep going.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:14)
With effective theories, one small step at a time, just keep unraveling the mystery.
Lisa Randall
(00:58:19)
Also having in mind the big questions, but doing one small step at a time. Exactly.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:23)
Yeah, looking out to the stars. You said the sunset. For me, it’s the sunset, the sunrise, and just looking at the stars. It’s wondering what’s all out there and having a lot of hope that humans will figure it out.
Lisa Randall
(00:58:39)
Right. I like it.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:42)
Lisa, thank you for being one of the humans in the world for having me here for that are pushing it forward and figuring out this beautiful puzzle of ours. Thank you for talking today. This was amazing.
Lisa Randall
(00:58:53)
Thank you for having me here.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:55)
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Lisa Randall. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. Now, let me leave you with some words from Albert Einstein. The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.

Transcript for Michael Malice: Thanksgiving Pirate Special | Lex Fridman Podcast #402

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #402 with Michael Malice.
The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in
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Table of Contents

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Introduction

Lex Fridman
(00:00:00)
What’s your opinion on my bird here, Mr. Parrot?
Michael Malice
(00:00:04)
It’s a Macaw. Scarlet Macaw.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:07)
What?
Michael Malice
(00:00:08)
It is a Scarlet Macaw.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:10)
Oh, you know birds?
Michael Malice
(00:00:11)
Yeah. And that’s actually not life-sized.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:15)
Are you saying he’s not real?
Michael Malice
(00:00:17)
I’m saying it’s not to scale.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:19)
Okay. But he’s real.
Michael Malice
(00:00:21)
Are we doing that Monty Python sketch?
Lex Fridman
(00:00:25)
Everything is a Monty Python sketch.
Michael Malice
(00:00:26)
I don’t think Monty Python’s funny.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:28)
You don’t?
Michael Malice
(00:00:29)
At all. Not once.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:29)
That explains so much.
Michael Malice
(00:00:31)
Does it? What does it explain?
Lex Fridman
(00:00:32)
What do you think is funny?
Michael Malice
(00:00:35)
You not answering that question is pretty funny.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:38)
Yeah. What do you think is funny, having a mantis shrimp?
Michael Malice
(00:00:41)
No.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:42)
You think Big Lebowski is funny?
Michael Malice
(00:00:44)
Oh God, no.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:46)
This is getting worse and worse. The following is a conversation with Michael Malice, anarchist and author of Dear Reader, The New Right, The Anarchist Handbook, The White Pill, and he is the host of the podcast, YOUR WELCOME. This is a Thanksgiving special of the pirate and oceangoing variety. So once again, let me say thank you for listening today and for being part of this wild journey with me. This is a Lex Fridman Podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Michael Malice.

Beauty and mantis shrimp

Michael Malice
(00:01:34)
The box?
Lex Fridman
(00:01:35)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:01:35)
The mystery box.
Lex Fridman
(00:01:36)
I’m wondering what’s in it.
Michael Malice
(00:01:36)
There’s something in that box of exquisite beauty, both literally and in what it symbolizes and why it is here.
Lex Fridman
(00:01:46)
Given the kind of human being you are, I’m terrified at what you find beautiful.
Michael Malice
(00:01:52)
That’s a good point. You kind of hit me with a curve ball. For me, the most beautiful wildlife are what I call God’s mistakes. Because my friend came up with that term where she’s like, “God made these disgusting animals, just threw in the bottom of the ocean.” He’s like, “No one’s ever going to see this.”
Lex Fridman
(00:02:12)
Yeah. You commented on Twitter about some creature, a rainbow type creature.
Michael Malice
(00:02:17)
The peacock mantis shrimp.
Lex Fridman
(00:02:18)
Yeah, it’s beautiful.
Michael Malice
(00:02:20)
It’s horrific though. So it has, I think eight legs, six arms, two punching claws or spearing claws depending on the genus. Two eyes, two antennae, two ear flaps. I don’t know what they do. And its punch can be as strong as a bullet. And the other type with the spears, divers call them thumb splitters because if you stick your finger near it’ll cut your thumb down to the bone. So I had one as a pet. All night I would hear banging on the PVC pipe. And I’ve got to tell you, if they have the best eyesight of any animal because they see in seven different ways. And when you make eye contact with this thing, it’s just absolutely terrifying. But you can eat them as sushi. They call them sea centipedes.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:01)
But they’re colorful and beautiful.
Michael Malice
(00:03:03)
That’s species is, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:04)
What was it like having one as a pet, and why did you do it?
Michael Malice
(00:03:09)
Well, when you have a species that’s that unique and that much of an outlier, growing up, reading these books, watching these shows, I found this stuff so much more fascinating than space, which is dead. So to be able to have this specimen in your house and just observe its behavior is just an amazing thing.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:32)
Why’d you get rid of it?
Michael Malice
(00:03:34)
I didn’t have, I guess, the right minerals in the mix because-
Lex Fridman
(00:03:36)
It died?
Michael Malice
(00:03:37)
… it had a problem moulting once. Yeah, it couldn’t moult correctly.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:40)
Wow. Do you miss it? Think about it still?
Michael Malice
(00:03:43)
I do think about it, to be honest. I still have a pair of it’s punching appendages from when it moulted.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:51)
What pet animal in your life do you miss the most, that has been in your life that you think about?
Michael Malice
(00:03:59)
I’ve never had cats or dogs growing up or anything like that, which I… Oh God. My problem is-
Lex Fridman
(00:04:07)
Here we go.
Michael Malice
(00:04:08)
… if I like something, I will go down a rabbit hole. So I know if I got one tattoo, I already know my first five are going to be. Okay? So I can’t do it because then once I get those five, it’s going to be a hundred and I’m already too old to be the tattoo guy.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:25)
What would be the first tattoo? My face? Would it go on your ass cheeks or where would you put them if it was my face?
Michael Malice
(00:04:36)
If I got your face, it would definitely be on my arm right here.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:39)
If you had multiple faces, would you put like?
Michael Malice
(00:04:42)
I think delts, right? Shoulders, different faces on different shoulders.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:44)
And when you flex?
Michael Malice
(00:04:45)
I’d want some symmetry.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:46)
Yeah. Would you get a dictator? If you had to get a dictator, who would you get?
Michael Malice
(00:04:51)
Would have to be Kim Jong-il. Right? Because I wrote the book on him.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:54)
Oh, it’s like the plugging your book in the tattoo?
Michael Malice
(00:04:57)
I don’t think plugging, it’s just I have a personal connection to this stuff.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:00)
Good opener, the conversation. People would be asking why him and he’d be like, “Well, I wrote a book about it.” And I’d be like, “Oh, okay.”
Michael Malice
(00:05:07)
Okay. Here’s why-
Lex Fridman
(00:05:08)
“Let me check it out.”
Michael Malice
(00:05:08)
That would be a bad. No, that’s not what happens.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:10)
Okay.
Michael Malice
(00:05:11)
Here’s the thing.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:12)
What happens?
Michael Malice
(00:05:12)
When you write a book about North, “Hey, nice to meet you. What is it you do?’ “I’m an author.” “What kind of books do you write?” “Well, my last book was on North Korea,” 90% of the time, 90, they will then start telling me everything they know about North Korea. And it’s like, “I don’t need, this isn’t a quiz, and it’s a very poorly understood country. I don’t expect you to know anything. You’re not on the spot. And half of what you’re saying is not accurate either. It’s fine.”
Lex Fridman
(00:05:36)
How often did they bring up Dennis Rodman?
Michael Malice
(00:05:38)
A hundred percent.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:39)
A hundred percent of the time.
Michael Malice
(00:05:40)
“Oh, so do you know Dennis Rodman?”
Lex Fridman
(00:05:42)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:05:42)
But I don’t understand why. I guess, people feel the need to, “All right, now we’re talking about this subject. I just got to drop whatever I can talk about.” It’s usually a small amount. And there’s this thing in the culture, which I hate that everyone have to have an opinion on everything. And it’s like it’s okay to be like, “Yeah, I don’t know anything about that. Tell me more.” There’s lots of things I don’t know anything about.

Parrots, Pirates, and Monty Python

Lex Fridman
(00:06:02)
What’s your opinion on my bird here, Mr. Parrot?
Michael Malice
(00:06:07)
It’s Macaw, Scarlet Macaw.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:10)
What?
Michael Malice
(00:06:11)
It is a Scarlet Macaw.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:13)
Oh, you know birds?
Michael Malice
(00:06:14)
Yeah. And that’s actually not life-sized.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:18)
Are you saying he’s not real?
Michael Malice
(00:06:20)
I’m saying it’s not to scale.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:22)
Okay. But he’s real.
Michael Malice
(00:06:24)
Are we doing that Monty Python sketch?
Lex Fridman
(00:06:27)
Everything is a Monty Python sketch.
Michael Malice
(00:06:29)
I don’t think Monty Python’s funny.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:31)
You don’t?
Michael Malice
(00:06:31)
At all. Not that once.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:32)
That explains so much.
Michael Malice
(00:06:33)
Does it? What does it explain?
Lex Fridman
(00:06:35)
What do you think is funny?
Michael Malice
(00:06:38)
You not answering that question is pretty funny.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:39)
Yeah. What do you think is funny, having a mantis shrimp?
Michael Malice
(00:06:44)
No.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:45)
Do you think big Big Lebowski is funny?
Michael Malice
(00:06:46)
Oh God, no. Although…
Lex Fridman
(00:06:49)
This is getting worse and worse.
Michael Malice
(00:06:50)
To be fair, I only tried to watch Big Lebowski after it’s been part of the culture for many years.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:57)
Right.
Michael Malice
(00:06:58)
To the point where every single line has been quoted incessantly by the most annoying frat bros ever. So I kind of have been poisoned to be able to appreciate it.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:10)
Right.
Michael Malice
(00:07:10)
So maybe if I’d seen it when it came out, before it became a thing, I would’ve enjoyed it. I couldn’t get through it. I couldn’t get through 20 minutes.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:17)
Is that how you feel about Schindler’s List?
Michael Malice
(00:07:21)
Well…
Lex Fridman
(00:07:21)
It’s so much easier for me to stare at you when you have sunglasses on.
Michael Malice
(00:07:24)
I didn’t think you’d be the one making Holocaust jokes today. And yet, here we are.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:28)
And cut scene. I actually have no trouble making eye contact with you when you’re wearing shades.
Michael Malice
(00:07:35)
Yes, because you’re a robot.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:36)
Two copies of myself.
Michael Malice
(00:07:38)
Yeah. Oh, you’re seeing yourself in them?
Lex Fridman
(00:07:39)
Mm-hmm.
Michael Malice
(00:07:40)
Okay, cool.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:40)
Yeah, I’m having a conversation with myself. It’s not your fault, Lex.
Michael Malice
(00:07:46)
They made you like this. You were just a good little Roman in Saint Petersburg.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:51)
I could see Mr. Parrot a little bit too.
Michael Malice
(00:07:54)
But what do you find funny? Come on. This is an interesting subject.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:57)
Well, I find Monty Python. I find absurdity funny.
Michael Malice
(00:08:00)
Yes. I find absurdity funny. I think that’s the thing. When people come at me, and maybe this is an Eastern European thing, when they’re like, “How can you find this very dark subject funny?” It’s like, well, the humor. First of all, the humor is that you’re making fun of something that’s dark. So already it’s absurd. It’s completely inappropriate. Second, just psychologically, Joan Rivers said that Winston Churchill said, I don’t know if it’s true, that when you make people laugh, you’re giving them a little vacation. And I was just thinking about this the other day, how when I die, if, I want my funeral to be a roast. It doesn’t help me that everyone’s sad. If I brought people happiness or joy in life, whatever, I want to keep doing that in death. Your sadness doesn’t help me. I know you can’t help it, but tell stories of how I made you laugh. Make fun of me. Make me the punching bag. Even literally, take me out of that coffin and beat the-.

(00:08:55)
Make me a pinata. I don’t care. I don’t understand, well, I do understand, but it’s sad for me when people are like, “This isn’t funny. That isn’t funny.” The way I look at humor is the way it’s like a chef, right? It’s pretty easy to make bacon taste good, but some of these really obscure ingredients to make it palatable, that’s takes skill. So if you’re dealing with a subject that is very emotional or intense and you can make people laugh, then that takes skill and that’s the relief for them.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:29)
Yeah. It’s all about timing.
Michael Malice
(00:09:33)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:34)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:09:38)
What’s the difference? You want to hear one of my jokes?
Lex Fridman
(00:09:41)
Is it a pirate joke? Because that’s the only kind I accept today.
Michael Malice
(00:09:45)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:45)
But no, go ahead. It doesn’t have to be a pirate joke this one time.
Michael Malice
(00:09:48)
Do you know who Lia Thomas is?
Lex Fridman
(00:09:50)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:09:51)
What’s difference between Lia Thomas and Hitler?
Lex Fridman
(00:09:53)
What?
Michael Malice
(00:09:54)
Lia Thomas knows how to finish a race.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:58)
Very nice. Very nice.
Michael Malice
(00:09:59)
Did I just get the gold medal?
Lex Fridman
(00:10:00)
Good job. Why does it take pirates forever to get through the alphabet?
Michael Malice
(00:10:09)
Why?
Lex Fridman
(00:10:11)
Because they spent years at sea.
Michael Malice
(00:10:13)
Oh, I thought it was going to be an [inaudible 00:10:15] joke.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:15)
Nope. No.
Michael Malice
(00:10:16)
That’s a good one. I like that.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:17)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:10:18)
When I was in North Korea.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:21)
Oh, you know Dennis Rodman? It’s a callback.
Michael Malice
(00:10:23)
By the way, the thing that is very heartbreaking about the North Korean situation is that they have a great sense of humor. It would be a lot easier if these were robots or drones. They have big personalities, big senses of humor, and that made it much harder to leave and interact with these people because I mean, there’s nothing more human and universal than laughter and laughter’s free.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:47)
Are you saying there’s humor even amongst the people that have most of their freedoms taken away?
Michael Malice
(00:10:52)
Especially. I mean, again, we’re from the Soviet Union, there’s [inaudible 00:10:57] I mean, Russian humor is a thing because there’s nothing you can, if you can’t have food or nice things, at least you can have joy and make each other laugh. I think about it all the time, and I think about my guide all the time. It’s been, what, 2012? So it’s been 11 years since I’ve been there, and she’s still there. And everyone I’ve seen is still there. They just recently electrified the border. So you can’t even, even the few people who are escaping can’t do it anymore.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:19)
Well, that’s interesting that they still have a sense of humor. I attribute the Soviet Union for having that because of the really deep education system. You got to read a lot of literature.
Michael Malice
(00:11:29)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:30)
And because of that, you get to kind of learn about the cruelty, the injustices, the absurdity of the world.
Michael Malice
(00:11:40)
Right.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:40)
As long as the writing is not about the current regime.
Michael Malice
(00:11:43)
Yeah. But I think if you look at African Americans, Jewish Americans, gay Americans, they are all disproportionate in terms of attributing to comedy. It’s not because these groups have some kind of magic to them., It’s that when you are on the outside looking in, A, you’re going to have different perspective than the people who are in the middle of the bell curve. But also, when you don’t have anything to lose, at the very least, you can make each other laugh and find happiness that way. So that is something that I think is an important thing to recognize.

Humor and absurdity

Lex Fridman
(00:12:14)
So what do you find funny? What makes you giggle in the most joyful of ways? The suffering of others?
Michael Malice
(00:12:24)
I mean, there are YouTube videos of fat people falling down and they’re really funny.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:36)
There’s two kinds of people in this world, those that laugh at those videos and those that don’t.
Michael Malice
(00:12:42)
No. And those that are in them. My friend Jesse just told me a great Norm Macdonald joke, and this is a good litmus test joke because he says, “A certain group of people lose their minds and a certain group of people just stare at you.” And he goes, “This kind of…” and so I’ll tell you the joke. This is Norm McDonald. A guy walks into a bar and he sees someone at the bar who has a big pumpkin for a head.

(00:13:07)
And the guy’s like, “Dude, what happened to you?” He goes, “Ugh, you never believe this. I got one of those genie lamps and this genie.” He’s like, “Well, what happened?” He goes, “Well, the first wish, I wished for a hundred million dollars.” He’s like, “Yeah, did you get it?” He goes, “Yeah.” He goes, “In my bank account. Feels fine.” He goes, “All right. Well, the second wish, I wished to have sex with as many beautiful women as I want.” He goes, “Did that happen?” He goes, “Yeah, it was amazing.” He goes, “Then what?” “Well, I wished for a giant pumpkin head.”
Lex Fridman
(00:13:34)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:13:35)
So there’s a certain mindset that will just be staring at the screen. And that is, I mean, there’s so many levels why that’s funny, at least to me. And I just love that kind of humor.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:45)
Well, Norm McDonald is just, I watch his videos all the time. He’s a guy that definitely makes me giggle. And he’s one of the people that makes me giggle for reasons I don’t quite understand.
Michael Malice
(00:13:58)
Did you ever see him with Carrot Top on Conan O’Brien?
Lex Fridman
(00:14:01)
No.
Michael Malice
(00:14:02)
Making fun of Carrot Top?
Lex Fridman
(00:14:03)
No.
Michael Malice
(00:14:05)
This is probably the best talk show clip of all time. He’s on with Courtney Thorne-Smith. She was on Melrose’s Place and Conan O’Brien’s the host, and Courtney’s talking about how she’s going to be an upcoming movie with Carrot Top. And Conan is like, “Oh, what’s it going to be called?” And she’s like, “Doesn’t have a title yet.” And Norm goes, “Oh, I know what should be called, Box Office Poison.” And they’re all laughing. And she’s like, “No, no, no, the working title is Chairman of the Board. And Conan goes, “Do something with that smart ass.” And Norm goes, “Yeah, bored is spelled B-O-R-E-D.” And they all just completely lost it.
Lex Fridman
(00:14:39)
There’s something about him with words spoken out of his mouth with the way he turns his head and looks at the camera.
Michael Malice
(00:14:46)
I think he is one of those rare comedians who you really feel like he’s talking to you directly. He feels like he’s winking at you in the audience. And he’s like, “Can you believe I’m doing this?” It’s like almost he feels like he’s, I don’t want to say imposter, but he’s more a member of the audience than he is a member of the people on the stage.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:06)
Yeah, it feels like he’s on our side.
Michael Malice
(00:15:08)
Yes. Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:09)
Whatever the hell “Our” means.
Michael Malice
(00:15:11)
Roseanne got him his first job.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:14)
Man. Roseanne, you and her have been hanging out.
Michael Malice
(00:15:17)
I got it. Oh my God. Talk about Thanksgiving. When you are talking to Roseanne Barr and making eye contact with this person, it is, I can’t even describe it. It’s just like, “Holy crap, Roseanne Barr’s talking to me.” She is, I’ve said this to her face, pathologically funny. It does not turn off. And you’re sitting there and you’re like, “Holy crap.”

(00:15:40)
And when you make her laugh, which is that laugh that’s in the theme song of her show, you feel like, “Okay, I did a mitzvah. I did something good and right in the world that I made Roseanne Barr laugh.” And it’s also really funny because, and she’s going to hate this, because I tell her, she’s adorable. She doesn’t like that. She’s little. You think of Roseanne Barr as this force of nature, like a tsunami.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:01)
Big, yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:16:01)
She’s five three, I’d say maybe 130. And she puts on the sunglasses, you think this little old Jewish lady. You’d never know this is one of the most epic performers of all time. She lives near here now. So it’s just so much fun talking to her. There was an old satirical magazine in the, I think early two thousands called Heeb, written by Jews, and she dressed up as Hitler for one of the photo shoots, and she was baking little men in the oven. I found it on eBay, I wanted her to sign it to, “Michael, it should have been you.” But she signed it to, “Michael, you’re one smart cookie.” And now it hangs, “Love, mom, Roseanne Barr.” And I call her mom and it hangs over my desk because I have her good domestic goddess energy flowing at me. What?
Lex Fridman
(00:16:52)
What do you find? What else? So Norm McDonald. I guess, we’ve landed on that.
Michael Malice
(00:16:56)
No. My favorite comedian is-
Lex Fridman
(00:16:56)
We agree on something.
Michael Malice
(00:16:57)
My favorite comedian of all time is Neil Hamburger. So Neil Hamburger, I don’t know if I’m ruining the bit, he’s a character performed by this guy named Gregg Turkington. So he comes out in a tuxedo, big eyeglasses, holding three glasses of water, coughing into the mic. And I remember I saw him once in LA and the girl ahead of me, at the table ahead of me was with her boyfriend, this basic chick, pumpkin spice. She turns to him and she goes, “What is this?” And I remember the first time he was on Jimmy Kimmel, and he tells one of his jokes and it was like, “Why does ET Reese’s Pieces so much? Well, that’s what sperm tastes like on his home planet.” And no one laughs. And he goes, “Oh, come on guys. I have cancer.” And it just cuts to this Marine in the audience with his arms crossed. So if you know what he’s doing, it’s just absolutely amazing.

(00:17:58)
He opened for Tenacious D once in somewhere, I think in Ireland or the UK, one of those. And they’re booing him because his jokes are often not funny. He’s like, “Hey, where did my whore ex-wife run off to with that dentist she’s shacking up with? I don’t know. But when I see her in court next month, Alaska.”

(00:18:20)
So they’re booing and he goes, “All right, do you guys want me to bring out Tenacious D?” They’re like, “Yeah.” “Do you want to see your heroes of my Tenacious D?” “Yeah.” “Come on, let me hear it. Do you want to see Tenacious D?” “Yeah.” He goes, “All right, if I tell this next joke and you don’t boo me, I’ll bring out Tenacious D.” And it’s like, I’m trying to think of one that’s not too…
Lex Fridman
(00:18:44)
Self censorship is never good.
Michael Malice
(00:18:45)
Okay. He goes, “Can we agree that George Bush is the worst President America’s ever had?” Everyone claps. He goes, “Which makes it all the stranger that his son, George W. Bush was in fact the best.”
Lex Fridman
(00:18:58)
I take it back on the self-censorship.
Michael Malice
(00:19:01)
So two people laugh and he goes, “Oh, that’s amazing. I guess I’ll do an encore.” And he did 10 more minutes. It was just, I love him so much.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:09)
It’s interesting. They opened for Tenacious D. Jack Black, that’s a comedic genius of a different kind.
Michael Malice
(00:19:16)
Oh, yeah. And he was in one of my favorite movies, Jesus’ Son. It’s this little Indie movie. He did a great turn in that. He’s really underrated as an actor. He’s got a lot of range. I know he kind of get types cast as this one specific type, but he’s really, really talented.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:30)
But also just the pure joy.
Michael Malice
(00:19:32)
Yes. He’s clearly having fun.

Thanksgiving

Lex Fridman
(00:19:35)
Okay. It is Thanksgiving. So in the tradition, following tradition, what are you thankful for, Michael, in this world?
Michael Malice
(00:19:45)
Do you have a list too?
Lex Fridman
(00:19:46)
No, not really.
Michael Malice
(00:19:47)
Really?
Lex Fridman
(00:19:48)
It’s up in here.
Michael Malice
(00:19:49)
Oh, I mean, but you have several things you’re thankful for.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:51)
Yes.
Michael Malice
(00:19:52)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:52)
Yes.
Michael Malice
(00:19:53)
One of the things I’m-
Lex Fridman
(00:19:54)
My list comes from the heart. I don’t have to write anything down.
Michael Malice
(00:19:56)
Well, I don’t have written down.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:57)
Okay.
Michael Malice
(00:19:58)
One of the things that I’m most thankful for, this is a common answer, but I can back it up, is my family. Because my nephew, Lucas, is now six years old. And when kids have a sense of humor, it’s like just miraculous. So he stole my sister’s phone, his mom. Figured out that grandma is listed as mom in the phone, and he calls her up and he’s like, “Michael’s in the hospital. He’s really sick.

(00:20:27)
He didn’t want to tell you.” And she’s freaking out. He goes, “Prank.” So I took him, Dinesh D’Souza just released a movie called Police State, which was actually really good, highly recommend it. I was surprised how much I liked it because he wasn’t going Republicans good, Democrats bad.

(00:20:41)
It was just about authoritarianism. And he had a movie premier at Mar-a-Lago. So I’m like, I got to bring Lucas to Mar-a-Lago. So Lucas is, I’m like, “We’re going to the President’s house.” He’s like, “Oh, the White House?” And I’m like, “No, no, a former president.” He goes, “Oh, Abe Lincoln?” And I’m like, “Okay, kid logic.” He’s giving logical answers. This is kind of like AI, you have to program it. It’s using logic correctly.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:04)
You should have told him it’s a president that’s second to only Ab Lincoln in terms of greatness.
Michael Malice
(00:21:11)
Accomplishments, yeah. He went up to all the women in their ball gown, evening gowns, and he goes, “You’re so beautiful. Were you born as a girl?” So when you have this six year old asking you this, it was really, really fun. So that is a great joy to have a nephew. And I have another one, Zach, who’s coming up in age, and he’s starting to talk now. That is really, really fun for me.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:39)
Getting to watch them find out about the world for the first time.
Michael Malice
(00:21:43)
And also training them, that he loves being funny and having fun.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:49)
You’re his audience in a sense?
Michael Malice
(00:21:51)
Yeah, but.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:52)
Because you giggle and?
Michael Malice
(00:21:54)
I give him, “We’re prank bros.” He gives me a high five. My family, and this is one, you talk about what I find funny, this is things that actually enraged me. When people, and this is such a wasp thing, don’t just go with the joke or they’re like, “I don’t get it,” or they don’t understand to just go with it.

(00:22:10)
I was in the car with my sister when she was 10, 12, whatever. She’s much younger than me. She’s 12 years younger. And there’s this species of squid, by the way, which is asymmetric. One of its eyes is very much bigger than the other because it swims horizontally. And so one’s looking up, one’s looking down where there’s more light. Shout out. If you want to learn more about squids, go to octonation.com.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:32)
OctoNation. Shout out.
Michael Malice
(00:22:34)
Shout out to Warren.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:34)
There’s a lot of fascinating stuff. OctoNation on Instagram.
Michael Malice
(00:22:37)
Yes. I was in the car with my sister. She’s 10 or 20.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:40)
Me as a pirate, I’m sorry for the rude interruptions. I appreciate that comment, especially.
Michael Malice
(00:22:45)
Yeah, it’s a great. Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:46)
These jokes and thoughts are coming to me at a ten-second delay, so I apologize. Anyway, you were telling about the asymmetrical.
Michael Malice
(00:22:54)
I know where I was, don’t worry. I got it.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:54)
All right.
Michael Malice
(00:22:56)
So I tell my-
Lex Fridman
(00:22:56)
Sometimes you need help.
Michael Malice
(00:22:57)
No.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:57)
The age is getting to you.
Michael Malice
(00:22:57)
I was…
Lex Fridman
(00:23:02)
Your skin is showing it. It’s getting dark.
Michael Malice
(00:23:06)
I told my sister, I go, “When you were born, one of your eyes was bigger than the other, and you had to have surgery to fix it.” So she turns, she’s like, “Mom.” And my mom goes, “Honey, the important things that you’re beautiful now. It’s like, what’s the big deal? It was just a little surgery.” And I says like, “All right.” Calls grandma. And grandma goes, she goes, “Michael said that I was born one of the eyes.” She goes, “Why is he telling you this now? It’s not a big deal.” So the fact that everyone went with this…
Lex Fridman
(00:23:35)
Oh, nice.
Michael Malice
(00:23:36)
I was so impressed. I was like, “This is a quality family in this very specific regard.”
Lex Fridman
(00:23:41)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:23:41)
Does your family have a sense of humor?
Lex Fridman
(00:23:43)
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:23:43)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:47)
Soviet culture, there’s a dark sense of humor.
Michael Malice
(00:23:50)
Very much so.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:51)
There’s…
Michael Malice
(00:23:52)
Wordplay.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:52)
Wordplay. Yeah. Yeah. And especially the Russian language allows for some-
Michael Malice
(00:23:58)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:59)
Hilarity to it. There’s also culture of poetry and my dad, my mom too, but they remember a lot of lines from books and poems. So you can do a lot of fascinating references that add to the humor and the richness of the conversation.
Michael Malice
(00:24:18)
I feel like that’s a very Russian thing. At a party or maybe at a bar or something, I don’t know where you’d meet people, these are such great ice-
Lex Fridman
(00:24:18)
I never go out.
Michael Malice
(00:24:25)
I meant in Russia.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:27)
Oh.
Michael Malice
(00:24:27)
I meant these would be such good icebreakers, right? You go up to someone and goes, “Hey, did you hear this one?” [foreign language 00:24:32] And you just tell him some little story.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:34)
Did you say icebreakers because it’s cold in Russia? I’m here all night.
Michael Malice
(00:24:42)
That’s true. You never leave the house.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:42)
Literally.
Michael Malice
(00:24:46)
I feel like that’s a thing.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:47)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:24:48)
And that’s not a thing in America.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:51)
You mean like witty banter?
Michael Malice
(00:24:53)
No. Meaning you go up to stranger and that’s your icebreaker. You tell them this little joke, and since everyone kind of has the same sensibilities, right away, you guys are chatting. I don’t think that’s a thing here.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:02)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:25:02)
I think here it’s more small talk, which.
Michael Malice
(00:25:00)
… We’re chatting. I don’t think that’s a thing here. The thing here, it’s more small talk, which drives me crazy.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:05)
So what else are you thankful for?
Michael Malice
(00:25:06)
Well, what’s something you’re thankful for?
Lex Fridman
(00:25:09)
Well, you went with family. I’m definitely thankful for family.
Michael Malice
(00:25:12)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:12)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:25:14)
If I may ask, how do they react to you? You’re sitting down with Elon, you’re sitting out Netanyahu, sitting down with Kanye, all these big names. Are they expressing that they’re proud of you or is it more like, why haven’t you talked to this person?
Lex Fridman
(00:25:30)
Yeah, more Michael Malice, please.
Michael Malice
(00:25:34)
The people’s choice.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:36)
Yeah, They’re very proud. But they get argumentative and they’re just like a regular human being with whom I’m close and we just argue about stuff. They’re maybe not enough show the being proud of, but that part is just the nature of our relationship. It’s also the same with your parents?
Michael Malice
(00:25:56)
Yeah. I don’t talk to my dad. That’s one of the reasons because there’s never ever any good job. And at a certain point it’s like, why am I trying to search for approval from someone I’m never getting it for? And from whom it wouldn’t mean anything at this point anyway.
Lex Fridman
(00:26:14)
Well, that’s interesting. There’s a journey like that for a lot of people with their father or their mother. They’re always trying to find approval, and that’s life for a lot of people. That’s a really big part of the human condition is that relationship you have with your father, with your mother. I don’t know. It’s a beautiful thing whether it’s been a rough childhood or a beautiful one, all of it. That’s who you are. The relationship, especially early on in your life with your father or with your mother, is extremely formative.
Michael Malice
(00:26:48)
Yeah. My dad taught me a lot of things at a young age that I’m very, very grateful for. He’s extremely intelligent, very flawed, and that’s fine. We all are, except for me. And it’s the kind of things that when you learn things at a right age, and this is one of the things I like about being older, is that when I’m friends with people-
Lex Fridman
(00:26:48)
Much older.
Michael Malice
(00:27:09)
Much older, much older. When I have friends who are younger, it’s very easy for me to keep them from making the mistakes I did. So at least this is something I’m getting out of it is that, okay, I can’t fix these mistakes, but it just takes me 30 seconds and I can pull you back from making the mistake. So he’s taught me a lot as a kid, he really encouraged me very much to… He has a very good sense of humor and also very bad in some ways. Dad jokes, but also really funny jokes, but also this love of learning that I got that from him. And I have got literally right now, 98 books on my shelf to read. I remember I had a friend and she ran into someone she went to high school with and he stopped me on the train and he’s like, “Yo, you’re not in college. You don’t need to read books anymore.” And I was just horrified to hear this.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:00)
Yeah, yeah. Boy, don’t I know it.
Michael Malice
(00:28:07)
You do laugh, but there’s a lot of things I don’t understand. When you got heat for, I want to read the Western Classics. To me, that might’ve been the internet at its absolute worst.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:21)
I think there’s just a cynical perspective you can take that this is such a simple celebration of a thing, that there must be something behind it. I think the internet for good and bad, is just skeptical. What’s behind this?
Michael Malice
(00:28:36)
My hero, Albert Camus. And if there’s one thing I would want to fight, it’s cynicism because it’s such a giving up. It’s such, everything sucks, this sucks, this sucks. Most things suck. Most stand up comedians suck. Most movies suck. All podcasts suck. But it doesn’t matter.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:54)
Especially yours.
Michael Malice
(00:28:55)
Especially mine. It’s unwatchable.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:58)
You’re welcome. You can’t even spell it correctly.
Michael Malice
(00:29:03)
But the stuff that’s good is what matters. Who cares if 90% of movies are terrible? They’re the ones that change your life, the books, the people, the comedians, the shows, the music.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:17)
And even the terrible things have good moments, beautiful moments.
Michael Malice
(00:29:22)
Some, not all.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:23)
Your podcast being an example of not all. I keep listening for something good, something good.
Michael Malice
(00:29:31)
In all fairness, none of my guests have anything to offer.so that’s not on me. I try.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:37)
Yeah. Well, I wish you’d talk a little less in your podcast. It’s a little excessive. I only listen for the underwear commercials.
Michael Malice
(00:29:46)
Sheathunderwear.com. Promo code Malice.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:48)
I haven’t seen you do it in a while, but this kind of commentary on a debate or I think it was with Rand, like an Ayn Rand debate or something.
Michael Malice
(00:30:00)
Oh yeah. Malice at the Movies. I watched the video and I broke it down.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:03)
That was really great. I wish you did that more.
Michael Malice
(00:30:05)
I haven’t done livestreaming in a long time. It was something I was doing a lot in New York, especially during COVID. I feel that I don’t know, I got so many projects on the plate. Oh, this is something else I’m thankful for. This is something I’m very, very thankful for and I’m going to announce it here.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:26)
Coming out of the closet, finally. Go ahead. Who’s the lucky guy?
Michael Malice
(00:30:38)
You’re the one in drag.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:42)
Guns out. Guns out.
Michael Malice
(00:30:45)
He makes me call him Sex Friedman.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:48)
You like it.
Michael Malice
(00:30:50)
I didn’t say I did.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:52)
All right.
Michael Malice
(00:30:52)
Didn’t even imply that. When I in, as you probably know as you know, but as many people watching this also know, Harvey Pekar who had the comic book series, American Splendor was the subject of the movie, American Splendor. He wrote a graphic novel about me in 2006 called Ego and Hubris, which goes for like $150 on eBay. It’s not worth it, just downloaded it. And I met Harvey because I wrote this screenplay about this band from the 80s called Rubber Rodeo. It’s a real band. And the keyboardist, Gary Leib, who passed away. Rest in peace, Gary. Introduced me to Harvey because he did the animation for the movie. And this script’s been in my desk for over 20 years, and I realized thanks to my buddy Eric July, who has some huge success with his comics, I could just produce this as a graphic novel.

(00:31:43)
So I’ve got an artist, we’re getting it together, so I’m going to make it happen finally. And it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done. I’m really proud of the story. It’s ironic reading it now, because when you’re a writer, obviously different books, you put different aspects of yourself into them, and this story is very, very dark because basically they did all the right things and they went nowhere. What I realized was reading it now, that all these fears I had over 20 years ago about what if I’m not going to make it? What if I’m doing all the hard work and it’s still not enough? Now it’s been disproven because I can at least pay my rent.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:22)
Do you feel like you’ve made it because you said you could pay your rent.
Michael Malice
(00:32:26)
I feel that to make it is if you don’t have to have a boss, and you know how I really felt like I made it?
Lex Fridman
(00:32:36)
Mm-hmm.
Michael Malice
(00:32:37)
This is going to sound like a joke, and it’s not. This is being an immigrant, I own as you know, Margaret Thatcher’s bookcases.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:45)
Yes.
Michael Malice
(00:32:45)
So to me as an immigrant, to have her bookcases in my house, I’ve made it.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:51)
You’re right. It’s not a joke.
Michael Malice
(00:32:53)
There’s nothing funny about it at all.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:55)
Not laughing.
Michael Malice
(00:32:55)
It’s time to get serious.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:59)
Oh, nice. Oh, now I’m more nervous and aroused. So what else are you thankful for? So we’re both thankful for family.
Michael Malice
(00:33:10)
the fact that I can-
Lex Fridman
(00:33:11)
Still get it up?
Michael Malice
(00:33:12)
What’s that?
Lex Fridman
(00:33:13)
Nothing, go ahead.
Michael Malice
(00:33:14)
I think as an author, to be able to write what you want and have of enough an audience that it covers your living, that’s as good as it gets as an author almost. You don’t need to be Stephen King or some legend. There’s lots of stand-ups who aren’t world famous, but they have perfectly good living. They do their gig, they do what they love. I feel very, very blessed. You must be thankful for your career?
Lex Fridman
(00:33:43)
Yeah, yeah. Career wise. But I think the best part about it’s just making friends with people I admire.
Michael Malice
(00:33:52)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:33:53)
Quite honestly, just friends. The people that have gotten to know me, I hide from the world sometimes, I hit some low points, especially with all the new experiences and just the people that have been there for me and haven’t given up on me.
Michael Malice
(00:34:06)
There’s days, and I’m sure you’ve had this also where I literally don’t speak to someone the whole day. And in certain times in my life, I remember very vividly, I was in DC in ’97, I was an intern, and that summer, DC closes down on the weekends. And I remember those weekends when I got off the phone with the third person. I knew there was no possibility anyone was going to call and what that felt like, and it was dark and it was bad. So I remember those feelings of loneliness a lot.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:44)
I still feel alone like that sometimes. You don’t feel alone?
Michael Malice
(00:34:51)
Not anymore.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:53)
What’s the reason, you think?
Michael Malice
(00:34:57)
Because I have a lot of people who I care about and who care about me. The thing about moving to Austin is I forgot how lonely New York got because it was like one after another, I lost everybody. And then you start losing the places you go to, and then it was just like, “Holy crap. I’m very isolated.” And here in Austin, there’s not as much to do, obviously as in New York, but there’s a lot of people here. More people are coming all the time. So if I ever want to hang out with someone, I’ve got a long list. And these are people who I’ve known for a very long time, people who know me quite well, so I could be myself. My awful, awful, awful, awful self. And that is something I don’t take lightly.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:42)
Now you moved to Texas, it’s going to secede.
Michael Malice
(00:35:44)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:44)
It’s just a very-
Michael Malice
(00:35:46)
Do you know what happened with that?
Lex Fridman
(00:35:47)
No.
Michael Malice
(00:35:48)
I forget the guy’s name, and it’s probably for the best. On Monday, a guy in the Texas legislature introduces a bill to have it on the referendum to have a referendum for Texas to declare its independence. Tuesday, I’m on Rogan. Me and him discuss it. I give it national attention. It was also really funny because a lot of people are like, “These people have been in Texas, five minutes, blah, blah.” I go to the Texas legislature, meet with the guy, have a nice conversation. A month or two later, unanimous, I think, he gets voted kicked out of Congress because he got an intern drunk and was inappropriate with her. At least it was a girl in this case. But yeah, so that was my little Texas independence moment.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:36)
Oh, it didn’t go anywhere?
Michael Malice
(00:36:38)
It did not go anywhere.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:39)
Wow.
Michael Malice
(00:36:41)
But it’s still part of the platform of the Texas Republican Party.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:45)
It’s fascinating that history is probably laden with stories like this of failed revolutionaries. We celebrate the heroes, but then there’s the losers like…
Michael Malice
(00:36:55)
Myself.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:56)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:36:56)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:58)
And we’re going to mark that one as a failure and edit it out and moving on. So thankful. Friendships, right? But by the way, I want to say just to you, I’m thankful in these lonely moments, for people who write books. I’ve been listening to audiobooks a lot and reading a lot. I really like audiobooks actually. I don’t know, I can just name random person, Serhii Plokhy. He’s a historian I’m reading on the-
Michael Malice
(00:37:28)
Wait, I read him. What did he…
Lex Fridman
(00:37:29)
It’s just he’s written a book most recently about the Russia-Ukraine war.
Michael Malice
(00:37:35)
He wrote another one that I read. Didn’t he write about-
Lex Fridman
(00:37:37)
Empires, I think.
Michael Malice
(00:37:38)
The fall of the Soviet Union or something like that.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:38)
Yeah, yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:37:40)
Yeah. It was very, very good.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:41)
He’s great.
Michael Malice
(00:37:42)
I used him as a resource for the White Pill.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:44)
He’s objective while still having emotion and feeling to it. He has a bias.
Michael Malice
(00:37:49)
That’s fine.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:53)
A lot of times when you write a story that involves Putin, people are really ideological. They don’t write with a calmness and the clarity and the rigor of history, there’s emotion in it. There’s almost a virtue signaling. And he doesn’t have that, even though he is Ukrainian and has very strong opinions on the matter. Anyway, there’s people like that and he’s done an incredible job researching a recent event. Like he says, I was looking at everything that’s been written about the war in Ukraine and realizing the old Churchill line, that historians are the worst ones to write about current events except everybody else. And so he’s like, “I might as well just write about this war.” And he does an exceptional job summarizing day by day, the details of this war. Anyway. So I’m just grateful for a guy like that.
Michael Malice
(00:38:50)
For me, I’ll name some historians I love. Arthur Herman, Victor Sebastyen is probably my favorite. David Pietrusza, P-I-E-T-R- U-S-Z-A. When you are a historian, and I try to do this to some degree in the White Pill as much as I could. But when you take data and you make it read like a novel, so you’re learning about who we are as people, what had happened, but also it’s entertaining and readable. That to me is like the Acme of writing. I have so much admiration-
Lex Fridman
(00:39:25)
What does Acme mean?
Michael Malice
(00:39:27)
Top.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:27)
Okay.
Michael Malice
(00:39:28)
Zenith.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:29)
Zenith? Okay. Is this what writers do? They just come up with these incredibly sophisticated words? I’m impressed.
Michael Malice
(00:39:35)
Well, Acme is-
Lex Fridman
(00:39:35)
Because you could have just said the best of writing.
Michael Malice
(00:39:38)
Acme is also the company in Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote is always Acme, like Acme bombs. When they are that good, it leaves me in awe.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:52)
It’s just-
Michael Malice
(00:39:53)
Ron Chernow is another one.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:54)
Who?
Michael Malice
(00:39:55)
He wrote the Hamilton biography.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:57)
Oh, nice. Well, I have a lot of favorite historians about the whole time period of World War II, William Shirer, people that lived during it, especially. I really like those accounts. Obviously Soldier Knudsen, he’s not a historian, but his accounts are fascinating. Actually, how much do you talk about Soldier Knudsen?
Michael Malice
(00:40:20)
Never.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:21)
Not much, right? Why not?
Michael Malice
(00:40:24)
I feel like I wanted to. There’s nothing I could add to him.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:30)
But he’s the Michael Malice of the previous century?
Michael Malice
(00:40:34)
No, he’s talented, charismatic, and skilled. So he’s not the Michael Malice. Yeah. I feel like I didn’t read Gulag Archipelago for the White Pill.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:47)
You didn’t?
Michael Malice
(00:40:48)
I didn’t. No. I got a lot of it from Anne Applebaum, who’s a very controversial figure. Her history books on the Soviet Union, I think are superb, but she’s also accused of being very much a NeoCon and being a warmonger in contemporary times.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:02)
Oh, I see.
Michael Malice
(00:41:02)
And I think comparisons between Putin and Stalin, although there is a Venn diagram, I think are a bit much, because I think it’s very hard to claim that if Putin conquered Ukraine, that there’d be a genocide. I think that’s a very hard argument to make.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:19)
In these tense times. Even the comparisons of what’s going on in Israel on either side, comparisons to the Holocaust are also troubling in this way.
Michael Malice
(00:41:28)
Yes. And I also don’t like how that… I got in trouble. There was some literal demon who works at the Atlantic.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:36)
As opposed to a regular demon?
Michael Malice
(00:41:38)
As opposed to figurative demon.
Lex Fridman
(00:41:40)
I didn’t know they employed demons.
Michael Malice
(00:41:41)
They exclusively employ demons at the Atlantic. And he was giving me crap this a couple of years ago on Twitter because I didn’t think it’s appropriate to refer to George Soros as a Holocaust survivor. And I’m like, “Listen, if you want to put him in the same context as Anne Frank, knock yourself out.” But I think that’s so completely disingenuous and frankly repulsive to me morally to equivocate between figures like that. And also to claim that anyone who is a billionaire who is including Elon, including Sheldon Adelson, there’s no shortage of these people. If you want to use your extreme wealth, use it to influence politics, you have to be up for criticism, Bill Gates. To protect these people from criticism just on the base of their identity is deranged to me.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:35)
But also, the Holocaust as a historical event and the atrocities within it are just singular in history. And so comparing them…
Michael Malice
(00:42:47)
What’s the utility? You’re just basically trying to take this brand. I’m using that term in a very specific way. And when they say climate denial, no one’s denying climate exists. So you’re just trying to go off Holocaust denial. I think it’s shameless and I think it’s gross.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:04)
And it cheapens everything because there’s deep important lessons about the Holocaust.
Michael Malice
(00:43:09)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:10)
To me, the lessons are about how extreme it can get.
Michael Malice
(00:43:15)
And how fast.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:17)
Yeah, and how fast.
Michael Malice
(00:43:17)
That’s the one. So people ask, “Oh, are humans basically good? Are they basically evil?” I always say they’re basically animals. And I think most people are almost fundamentally deranged. And that there’s basically this veneer of civilization and decency. And when shit hits the fan and we see this over and over, they do things that would’ve been completely unthinkable even to themselves five years ago.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:46)
Most people are fundamentally deranged with a veneer of civility.
Michael Malice
(00:43:50)
There’s a show called-
Lex Fridman
(00:43:51)
I Think I disagree with that.
Michael Malice
(00:43:53)
What’s the show called? I’m having Alzheimer’s because of the advanced age.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:58)
The age, the skincare. It’s just working well.
Michael Malice
(00:44:00)
There’s a show called, I Think You Should Leave. It’s a sketch comedy.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:00)
I think you should leave. Okay, sorry.
Michael Malice
(00:44:04)
It’s a sketch comedy show. And he captures these great… How’s your hair, princess? He captures these great moments of just the very thin veneer of normalcy and just the craziness that’s so frequently lurking underneath. Another great example of this, when this is dealing with people who are literally crazy, have you ever seen the show, Hoarders?
Lex Fridman
(00:44:27)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:44:27)
So every episode of Hoarders, there’s usually two people in every episode, but every episode has the same plot line, veneer of normalcy, veneer of normalcy, veneer of normalcy, slight expression of concern, full-blown derangement. And it always follows that exact pattern.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:44)
Yeah, I don’t know. I think the deep ocean of the human mind is good. There’s a longing to be good to others.
Michael Malice
(00:44:56)
I have seen literally no evidence of this. And I know everything’s a deep ocean with you people, but-
Lex Fridman
(00:45:01)
What do you mean you people?
Michael Malice
(00:45:02)
Pirates.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:04)
Oh.
Michael Malice
(00:45:05)
I don’t see it.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:05)
What’s that Mr. Parrot? He’s an antisemite/ No, that’s not nice to say in front of such a large audience. You’re embarrassing me, Mr. Parrot.
Michael Malice
(00:45:18)
Lex, you have-
Lex Fridman
(00:45:19)
What’s that Mr. Parrot? He’s a run-of-the-mill troll and barely an intellectual. That’s not nice to say. That’s not true. We talked about this. You have to see the good in people.
Michael Malice
(00:45:31)
You have seen personally, how quickly and easily it is for human beings to form outgroups and to just rid others, as I just did a minute ago with the Atlantic, completely out of the human race. And that happens constantly and very easily. Humans are tribal beings. I don’t see how that’s compatible with this essential desire to do good.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:58)
No, I think it’s like in 1984, the two minutes of hate. There is a part of humans that wants to be tribal and wants to get angry and hateful. And then that hate is easy to direct by, especially people as you, as an anarchist, talk about, there are people in power that direct that anger.
Michael Malice
(00:46:20)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:21)
But I think if you just look at recent human history, the desire for good, the communal desire for good outweighs that, I think. Most of life on earth right now, people are being good to each other in a most fundamental sense relative to how nature usually works.
Michael Malice
(00:46:40)
Okay. I think you’re both wrong about people and about nature. So nature is not inherently violent in the sense, for example, if anyone has an aquarium or if you look at wildlife, yeah, you’re going to have predator or prey, but these animals are going to be coexisting and they’re going to be ignoring each other for the most part, right?
Lex Fridman
(00:46:40)
Mm-hmm.
Michael Malice
(00:46:59)
And as for humans being essentially good, I think humans are essentially to each other, you said, I think they’re essentially civil and amiable, but that’s not really being good.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:12)
Good, I think is a thing that gets illustrated when you’re challenged, when there’s difficult situations.
Michael Malice
(00:47:17)
Yes, exactly. Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:18)
Civility is a good starting point. And then when there’s a big challenge that comes, people step up on average.
Michael Malice
(00:47:26)
I completely agree with you that human beings are capable of such profound goodness, that it makes you extremely emotional. And I certainly think that’s that’s true, but I think that’s more unusual than it’s the norm.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:42)
I see beauty everywhere.
Michael Malice
(00:47:43)
So do I, but that doesn’t mean it’s in every person.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:46)
Not in every person, but in most people. I wish there was a really good way to measure this, my general sense of the world. It’s just there’s so much incredible both in terms of economics, in terms of art, in terms of just creation as a whole, that’s happened over the past century, that it feels like the good is out powering the bad.
Michael Malice
(00:48:09)
You just did the perfect segue to the box.

Unboxing the mystery box

Lex Fridman
(00:48:16)
What’s in the box? Is it your fragile ego?
Michael Malice
(00:48:21)
You stole my joke. You stole my joke. That was the joke I made at you before we recorded. You stole my joke.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:28)
No, I didn’t. I write all your material, you hack.
Michael Malice
(00:48:33)
So as you know, I have a lot of beautiful stuff in my house because I think it’s something very important. Everyone listening, if you accomplish something that is great, some achievement, what I like to do is buy myself something to remember that moment. Because sometimes when it’s hard, you forget you’ve done great things in your life. You’ve made accomplishments. It doesn’t have to be some amazing factory. It could just be like my first job or I got a raise or you know what? Anything. So there’s this amazing sculptor named Jake Michael Singer, a singer who’s a sculptor, and I saw a piece of him.
Lex Fridman
(00:49:18)
How’s his singing voice? This joke’s not going-
Michael Malice
(00:49:23)
Hold on. I could go somewhere with this.
Lex Fridman
(00:49:24)
Okay.
Michael Malice
(00:49:25)
How’s his singing voice?
Lex Fridman
(00:49:26)
Do you want me to write your joke for you?
Michael Malice
(00:49:27)
Yeah. What’s the punchline? Harrrd. There it is, that’s the one.
Lex Fridman
(00:49:33)
That’s what she said.
Michael Malice
(00:49:34)
So I followed him on Instagram, he followed me back and he says, “What’s the point of being an artist if the work I create isn’t in the spaces of people I like and admire?” He’s a big fan of yours. You’ve given him and our episodes together give him joy. So he said, “If I make Lex a sculpture, will he put it on the-“
Michael Malice
(00:50:00)
He said, “If I make Lex a sculpture, will he put on the shelf behind him?” And what that reminded me of is when I was a kid, you read Batman comics and there’s the Bat Cave. And the Bat Cave has all this cool stuff in it. I didn’t realize until much later that all of those things in the bat cave had an origin story. So the giant penny, the dinosaur, there was actually a story where that came from. So if you’re a fan of a show, you can spot, oh, this is when this appeared. This is when that appeared. This is when that appeared. So he made you this sculpture. He lives in Turkey and it’s called Chance Murmur. And it is, I haven’t even seen it yet. It is absolutely beautiful.
Lex Fridman
(00:50:42)
So you want to do a little unboxing?
Michael Malice
(00:50:42)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:50:44)
Okay. Axe or…
Michael Malice
(00:50:49)
Body spray?
Lex Fridman
(00:50:54)
All right.
Michael Malice
(00:50:54)
Let’s do it.
Lex Fridman
(00:50:55)
Let’s unbox.
Michael Malice
(00:50:59)
I’m so excited. He lunges out of the box.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:04)
You know that Steven Seagal movie where there’s a stripper that comes out of the box?
Michael Malice
(00:51:07)
Is there?
Lex Fridman
(00:51:08)
Under Siege.
Michael Malice
(00:51:09)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:09)
He’s on a boat. You’re not an action film guy.
Michael Malice
(00:51:14)
No.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:19)
One.

(00:51:21)
What does the pirate say when he turns 80?
Michael Malice
(00:51:24)
What?
Lex Fridman
(00:51:25)
Aye matey.
Michael Malice
(00:51:29)
Aye matey. Oh.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:32)
Oh.

(00:51:33)
See, that’s how I know you don’t like humor.
Michael Malice
(00:51:35)
I just don’t like pirates.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:37)
Well, your mom does.

(00:51:39)
Do you play any musical instruments?
Michael Malice
(00:51:40)
No. Neither do you. I’ve seen your guitar videos.

(00:51:46)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:48)
Here’s a big piece of wood for you. That’s what it feels like, just so you know.
Michael Malice
(00:51:57)
Oh, wow. Do you need help?

(00:51:57)
Oh my God.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:00)
This traveled across the world.
Michael Malice
(00:52:05)
So here’s why his work speaks so much to me. So first of all, he’s combining so many different references. It’s Nike, the Goddess of Victory, right? It looks like an angel as well. The Italian futurist, which is my favorite art movement from the early 20th century, they tried to capture motion in 2D or 3D form.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:31)
Well, Jake, thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for creating beautiful things. Thank you for caring about somebody like me and somebody like Michael. We really feel the love.
Michael Malice
(00:52:43)
That’s the other thing.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:43)
Thank you.
Michael Malice
(00:52:45)
When you have something that matters to you in your house and you’re having a bad day, you can look at it and remember. You know what I mean? That spirit of joy. And I actually have a list here. Okay? I’ve got a little rant ready. Do you want to hear my rant?
Lex Fridman
(00:53:00)
Yeah. Let’s go.
Michael Malice
(00:53:02)
One of the things that drives me crazy is when people, especially conservatives, think that all contemporary art is ugly or abstract or literally garbage. And there’s a lot of that, but so much of the stuff out there in galleries is not only not crazy expensive, but they’re trying to sell things for people in their house. And these are young artists. They’re trying to add beauty. I have a list, so if you don’t believe me and you think all contemporary art is garbage or terrible, go to the website or any of these places that I’m going to rattle off, look through them. And you’re telling me that it’s not about creating beauty and joy and things in people’s lives?

(00:53:40)
So I don’t have any relationship with any of these people, these are just some galleries I follow on Instagram. Outre Gallery, Antler Gallery, Giant Robot 2, Beinart, I don’t know how to pronounce it, I’m sorry. B-E-I-N-A-R-T. Spoke Art Gallery, Var Gallery in Milwaukee, I was there. The pieces were not expensive at all.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:58)
What kind of art are we talking about? Everything? Paintings?
Michael Malice
(00:54:00)
Mostly paintings. Mostly paintings. Some sculptures too, like this. Corey Helford is my favorite one in LA. Night Gallery, Vertical Gallery, Avant Gallery, Hive Gallery, Haven Gallery, and Curio Art Gallery. I’m telling you, it’s not exorbitant. This is not the kind of thing where you have to go to a museum and be like, “This doesn’t make sense to me.” You look at it right away, you’re like, “Okay, I know what this is.” And it’s beautiful. It’s awesome. And you’re supporting someone who’s young and creative trying to do something and make the world a better place.

(00:54:31)
So I’m a big fan of the contemporary art scene. A lot of it is not great, but even the stuff that’s not great is very rarely disgusting or gross. It’s just like, okay, I’ve seen this before, or something like that.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:43)
Okay.
Michael Malice
(00:54:44)
It’s like the difference between, there’s a standup where I’ll pay money for the ticket, and someone who’s an opener. It’s like, I wouldn’t pay to see him perform, but he sure still made me laugh. That person is still by far more good than bad. So a lot of this art isn’t stuff I would own, but it’s like, okay, I get it. I like it.
Lex Fridman
(00:55:01)
Well, as the analogy goes, I really like going to open mics, actually, because funny… It sounds absurd to say, but funny isn’t the only thing that’s beautiful about standup comedy, it’s the…
Michael Malice
(00:55:14)
The agony.
Lex Fridman
(00:55:17)
It’s going for it. It’s trying to be funny. It’s taking the leap, trying the joke. And some of the best stuff is actually funny, but the audience is like three people, two of whom are drunk and bored, and you’re still going for it. And that’s the human spirit right there.
Michael Malice
(00:55:35)
Roseanne was telling me how Gilbert Gottfried would go on, it was like 3:00 in the morning. And it was her and three other comics in the audience and they all were just dying.
Lex Fridman
(00:55:46)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:55:46)
He was just killing them. Who’s your favorite comedian?
Lex Fridman
(00:55:53)
Dave Smith.
Michael Malice
(00:55:54)
Who?
Lex Fridman
(00:55:56)
And cut scene. Favorite comedian. First, Norm Macdonald. If you put a gun to my head and I had to answer really quickly, that would be him.
Michael Malice
(00:56:04)
Okay.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:07)
I would also say Louis C.K.
Michael Malice
(00:56:09)
Oh, wow. Yeah. Oh my God, yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:12)
But that’s almost like a vanilla answer at this moment in history because it’s like a-
Michael Malice
(00:56:16)
Louis C.K.’s pretty radioactive.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:18)
He is. Well, yeah. He does the tough topics-
Michael Malice
(00:56:21)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:22)
… the best. Mitch Hedberg. The wit of a good one-liner is great. I guess that’s what Norm Macdonald was a genius at. What about you?
Michael Malice
(00:56:33)
I mean, we’re so fortunate to be here in Austin because that Comedy Mothership, you go there and people are just killing it. David Lucas is amazing.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:43)
Yeah, he’s great.
Michael Malice
(00:56:43)
Thai Rivera probably did the best set I’ve seen since I’ve been here in Austin. And I watched him and I’m like, “This guy’s even bitchier than I am.” So I reached out to him. So he’s just terrific. David Lucas is another one, a buddy of mine.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:57)
You just said it twice, I think. David.
Michael Malice
(00:57:00)
I’m thinking of Dave Landau, excuse me.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:01)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:57:01)
Dave Landau. Joe Machi is-
Lex Fridman
(00:57:04)
Old age catching up.
Michael Malice
(00:57:04)
It’s true though.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:05)
It’s true.
Michael Malice
(00:57:06)
It’s true.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:07)
It’s true.
Michael Malice
(00:57:08)
Dave Lucas.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:10)
You ever been to the Comedy Mothership? It’s a great spot.
Michael Malice
(00:57:13)
Where is that? Is that in Austin?
Lex Fridman
(00:57:15)
Austin? Is that where Willie Nelson is from? I haven’t really… Go ahead, I’m-
Michael Malice
(00:57:19)
Oh, I heard a joke about that the other week.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:23)
Go ahead. Tell a joke again.
Michael Malice
(00:57:25)
What’s the only thing worse than giving head to Willie Nelson?
Lex Fridman
(00:57:31)
What?
Michael Malice
(00:57:32)
If he says, “I’m not Willie Nelson.”
Lex Fridman
(00:57:36)
What’s that, Mr. Parrot? I know he’s not funny. He thinks he’s better on Twitter. But that’s not nice to say, and right in front of his face. Just think how he feels.
Michael Malice
(00:57:49)
The statue, Chance Murmur is judging you.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:52)
Chance?
Michael Malice
(00:57:52)
It’s called Chance Murmur.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:54)
Chance Murmur.
Michael Malice
(00:57:55)
God, that’s so beautiful.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:56)
That is gorgeous.
Michael Malice
(00:57:58)
This is another reason I hate cynicism, and I talk about this a lot. Even just on Etsy, there are so many small, not huge companies, individual artisans who are creating great stuff and just making it happen. And it’s really sad for me where people can’t see that. Or if they’re like, “Well, how could I be excited about a sculpture when blah, blah, blah, the Middle East?” And it’s just like, you can always look for an excuse not to look for joy, or you could look for an excuse to look for joy.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:26)
Yeah. Etsy is incredible. I feel the same way about-
Michael Malice
(00:58:28)
OnlyFans?
Lex Fridman
(00:58:30)
… OnlyFans. I can’t even get that out of my mouth before laughing at my own failed joke.
Michael Malice
(00:58:34)
That’s what she said.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:36)
Oh, all right. That might be one of the first that’s what she said from Michael Malice.
Michael Malice
(00:58:43)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:43)
I’m going to count that.
Michael Malice
(00:58:48)
I don’t know what I’m going to do with mine, because I got my own. Mine’s three feet tall, just like me.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:52)
Your box was much bigger.
Michael Malice
(00:58:53)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:54)
And it was giving me an inferiority complex. I think I’m going to invade Russia. That’s a Napoleon reference for those in the audience.
Michael Malice
(00:59:09)
I don’t know if I’m going to… I think I’m going to put it in my bedroom so it’s the first thing I see when I wake up.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:13)
Put it in the bedroom.
Michael Malice
(00:59:13)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:16)
Did we get through everything we’re thankful for?
Michael Malice
(00:59:19)
No, I’ve got lots of things I’m thankful for.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:20)
What else? Friends, family. We said books.
Michael Malice
(00:59:26)
I’m thankful for career. I am thankful for… And I know people are going to lose their minds and I can hear them flipping out already. I am thankful for social media.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:40)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(00:59:41)
I’m thankful for several reasons. First, it is a way for people to make connections that they couldn’t have made in years past. That if you’ve got some weird hobby, you can find that other person’s weird hobby and you make that connection. It’s a great way to stay in touch permanently for people otherwise you’d lose touch with, you know, at whatever venue. And it’s also a great way to expose corporate depravity. When you have these organizations that are dishonest, I think the community notes thing on Twitter is the greatest thing ever.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:09)
Yeah, it’s incredible. I wish they would pay attention to the Michael Malice account more often.
Michael Malice
(01:00:15)
You shouldn’t be encouraging anyone to pay attention to my Twitter account.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:18)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:00:18)
It’s a dumpster fire. And I don’t mean Bridget, I mean like a literal… Bridget Phetasy.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:23)
Oh, Bridget, by the way, is amazing. But your Twitter account makes-
Michael Malice
(01:00:23)
She lives here.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:25)
Yes. Not here. I wish she did.
Michael Malice
(01:00:29)
She’s in Georgetown.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:30)
No, I mean in this, where we’re sitting.
Michael Malice
(01:00:32)
Oh.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:32)
It’s a joke, Michael.
Michael Malice
(01:00:33)
Is it?
Lex Fridman
(01:00:34)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:00:34)
But I’m just really glad about… It’s another way for people who before would’ve felt very alone. I know some people do feel alone, but for other people it makes them feel connected.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:46)
There’s been a lot of talk about antisemitism recently.
Michael Malice
(01:00:49)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:49)
What’s your sense about this? Is antisemitism like any other brand of hate? There’s a lot of hate out there.
Michael Malice
(01:00:57)
No, I don’t think it’s like any other brand of hate, because I don’t think racists or transphobes or homophobes or misogynists or xenophobes argue openly or even not so openly for the killing of black Americans, transgender people, gay people, women, or immigrants. And it’s not only something that’s talked about, it’s something that has actually happened. And not just the Holocaust, but just centuries of pilgrims, right? There’s this great book that I read many years ago called The Satanization of the Jews. Camille Paglia recommended it and I read it. And they live in this certain specific kind of antisemitism. And again, I’m not talking about people who are against Israel or something like that. I’m talking specifically about Jew hatred. They have this moral calculus that Jews are the only people who are capable of good or evil, and Jews are exclusively capable of evil.

(01:01:56)
For example, if you look at the George W. Bush White House, you had W, you had Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, a lot of these NeoCon advisors. So if there’s 10 people in a room and there’s one Jewish person, it’s his fault, and the rest are Jew controlled. So again, they only exist as a puppet of Jews in this kind of worldview. And it’s like, to me, if there were no Jews on earth, it is crazy to say that John Bolton and Liz Cheney and Lindsey Graham wouldn’t be pushing for more war. That makes no sense to me. It’s like, you blame the Jews when bad things happen, but when a Jewish person does something good, it doesn’t really matter. Or just wait, he’s going to do something bad. Well, yeah, that’s true. Human beings do good things and then they do bad things sometimes. But it only counts when that Jewish person does the bad thing.
Lex Fridman
(01:02:58)
I wonder what’s a way to fight antisemitism and fight hate in general?
Michael Malice
(01:03:02)
I think the only or the best way, because I thought a lot about this, about how did gay Americans go from being universally hated and despised to the point that many people in the ’80s went to their graves, those who had AIDS, without even telling their parents because they were so scared, to now Times Square is just covered in pride flags. And this also works for Islamophobia and some of these other bigotry, is what I call the ambassador program. Because as soon as you know someone who is a member of a certain group, it is a lot harder to be bigoted against them because instead of this being this out group that’s somewhere out there, it’s like, wait a minute, I work with this guy. Yeah, he’s kind of a jerk and maybe he sees things a little differently than me, but this guy is not a horrible human being. So I think the only way to fight any form of bigotry is to be a good example of the counter to whatever archetype or stereotype is in the culture.

Karl Marx and religion

Lex Fridman
(01:04:13)
Karl Marx wrote that, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.” As the famous phrase goes. Do you think he has a point?
Michael Malice
(01:04:26)
No. I hate that quote. I absolutely hate it. I despise this sort of Reddit internet atheist activism for the simple reason that I know many people who in finding faith have become objectively better human beings.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:46)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:04:46)
They start living consciously. They take morality seriously. They try, we all fail, to be moral good people. So this sneering that these midwits, these marginally intelligent people have towards religious people. Now, lots of religious people use religion to rationalize their bad behavior or sinful or big ego, so on and so forth. That exists, that’s true. But to say that it never helps anyone and it’s universally the… See, Marx was talking about a period, I mean, I’ll defend his quote, when his argument was the masses are being starved and oppressed, but they’re promised, don’t worry, you’ll have riches in heaven. So you should kind of let yourself be pushed around now, and this is kind of this BS bargain that the people are being given. So that was, I think, the point he was making. It certainly doesn’t apply nowadays. I’m close to the family in the Midwest. They’re good Christian people. I remember very specifically this guy, shout out to him, Sean Sherrod. I went to college with him. David Lucas.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:01)
Have you checked out the Comedy Mothership? Great club.
Michael Malice
(01:06:03)
Where is it? Is it in Austin?
Lex Fridman
(01:06:05)
Willie Nelson.
Michael Malice
(01:06:07)
I was 17, 18, freshman year, and I was reading all this criticism of the Bible and I was like, “Look, this is in there. Look at this in there.” And he put his hand on my shoulder and he says, “Michael, there’s nothing you’re going to tell me that’s going to make me lose my faith.” And that was a very self-aware and profound thing to say. As I’ve gotten older, I know lots of religious people. There’s no part of me that thinks they’re wrong or they should be mocked. It also reminds me of when people sneer at addicts in recovery, they’re like, “Alcoholism isn’t a disease, it’s a choice.” It’s like, wait a minute. You don’t know what it’s like to have your entire life ruined by drugs or alcohol.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:48)
Yes.
Michael Malice
(01:06:49)
And if you have to tell yourself, “I have this disease and blah, blah, blah,” and that keeps you from drinking and now you’re a moral upstanding person who’s reliable and takes responsibility for their actions, I don’t see the harm at all. So I think this kind of activist atheism is cheap. I don’t agree with it whatsoever. And I do not like that quote at all.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:12)
But otherwise, big fan of Marx?
Michael Malice
(01:07:14)
I mean, I think there’s a fan of mine, I forget who it was, apologies. He had this great quote, and this is me talking. He goes, “The games people play to feel smarter than others is depressing and annoying.” And I think this kind of fedora internet atheism is a good example, because here’s the other thing. If you’ve proven that someone else is stupid, that doesn’t mean you’re smart. You could both be stupid. So congrats, you proved someone else is stupid. Who cares?
Lex Fridman
(01:07:43)
Yeah. And sneering of all forms in general is just not great.
Michael Malice
(01:07:48)
That’s one of the things I block out people on social media instantly. You’re not going to sneer at me in my space. You could sneer at me all you want in your space, but I’m not putting up with your crap. I don’t know you.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:57)
MySpace, great social network.
Michael Malice
(01:08:00)
Is that on Sixth Street?
Lex Fridman
(01:08:04)
AOL.com.
Michael Malice
(01:08:07)
Clang, clang, clang. That’s how Lex comes.
Lex Fridman
(01:08:12)
Like a Pavlov’s dog. That was the sound before you get to see… Spend 10 minutes waiting for an image of a lady load one line at a time.
Michael Malice
(01:08:24)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:08:29)
I recently talked to John Mearsheimer, I don’t know if you know him at all. So he has this idea about offensive realism. It’s a way to analyze the world into national relations. And the basic idea, and I’ll run it by you and see what you think, is that states, nations want to survive and they try to do so by maximizing power, military power. And he talks about anarchy quite a bit, in that one of these underlying assumptions of this way of viewing the world is that states are anarchic towards each other.
Michael Malice
(01:09:10)
Yes, that’s true.
Lex Fridman
(01:09:11)
And they operate under a lot of uncertainty. States cannot be sure that other states will not use military capabilities against them.
Michael Malice
(01:09:18)
Right.
Lex Fridman
(01:09:19)
They want to survive and they want to use military power to control the uncertainty to protect themselves.
Michael Malice
(01:09:29)
So I disagree in that regard. And I see on your bookshelf, I think the world is a lot closer to Brave New World than it is to 1984. And I think if you look at, let’s suppose China’s influence in America. The influence is far more through soft power than military power. China doesn’t threaten America through “we’re going to kill you.” It’s more like the infiltration of universities, TikTok, things of that nature. Maybe this would’ve worked before the pop culture era, but I think one of the reasons we have this kind of American hegemony isn’t just a function of American military. I think it’s much more a function of American popular culture. When you’re exporting ideas and culture, it makes other people in other countries feel closer to you and also regard you as a friend, and also to adopt your value. It’s a great way to spread propaganda.
Lex Fridman
(01:10:28)
It seems to correlate though, right? It’s interesting. It’s an interesting idea. What has more power, the viral spread of ideas or the power of the military? It seems that the United States is at the top of the world on both.
Michael Malice
(01:10:44)
That’s true.
Lex Fridman
(01:10:45)
And so it’s hard to disentangle the two.
Michael Malice
(01:10:48)
Let’s look at Europe. American culture is very popular in Europe in many ways, right? The best music comes out of Sweden, Swedish indie pop. They’re singing in English, even though… So on and so forth. None of this is a function, maybe it’s a function of post World War II to some extent, but I don’t think it’s a function of American bases there. I think it’s a function of we’re exporting our music, our TV shows, and our movies.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:14)
Yeah. It’s interesting, if the battleground will be Brave New World, the battle of ideas.
Michael Malice
(01:11:18)
I think it’s clearly Brave New World. It’s so much cheaper, and again, this is one of the dark sides of social media, to use influence than it is to use threats. I think Covid is a good example of this. So much of the pressure, yes, there was authoritarianism, but it was the fact that everyone bought into it, rightly or wrongly. But the vast majority of the population wars behind all of these things, and that was through persuasion. And because people are begging for it to come back in many cases.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:47)
So who’s funding you? Which intelligence agency?
Michael Malice
(01:11:50)
Mossad.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:51)
Mossad. Mossad. This is how you do great interviewing. See, he didn’t even expect that. Okay.
Michael Malice
(01:12:01)
What’s that, Mr. Parrot?
Lex Fridman
(01:12:02)
What was that, Mr. Parrot? You knew it? But you didn’t have any documentation, did you?
Michael Malice
(01:12:10)
I think Mr. Parrot is threatened by the better wings on Chance Murmur.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:15)
He gets like that when he’s turned on, he’s not threatened.
Michael Malice
(01:12:18)
Oh, okay.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:18)
You can’t wait until all three of us are alone together. It’s going to be one hell of a party.
Michael Malice
(01:12:25)
Beaks and feathers everywhere.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:27)
And metal. Yeah, this thing is beautiful.

Art

Michael Malice
(01:12:32)
It’s ridiculous.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:34)
You have actually a lot of really cool stuff at your place.
Michael Malice
(01:12:37)
It’s so fun.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:39)
What’s a cool thing that stands out to you? Maybe a recent addition.
Michael Malice
(01:12:44)
So I went to the Dallas Museum of Art last year for my birthday and there was a painting I liked, and I Googled it and I saw the auction for that exact painting. And it was, I think three grand, which is not cheap, but not something you think… You think in a museum, “I could never afford something like this,” right? So when I went to Houston with some friends… The Sideserfs, Natalie, who made the cake of you.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:14)
Oh, yeah, the cake. Terrified my mom.
Michael Malice
(01:13:17)
Did it?
Lex Fridman
(01:13:18)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:13:18)
Aww.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:19)
No, it’s not the cake that terrified my mom. It’s you, Michael Malice, cutting it off, cutting the face off and laughing maniacally.
Michael Malice
(01:13:30)
Well, Natalie’s pregnant. She’s going to have a daughter named Daisy. So congrats to Natalie.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:30)
Congrats to Natalie.
Michael Malice
(01:13:35)
But I was in the museum with them and there was a statue of Thoth, who’s the Egyptian god whose head is an ibis. It’s a bird with a long beak. And Thoth is the god of the moon, god of knowledge, and supposedly he invented writing. So I thought, you know what? I’ve always loved Ancient Egypt. I know a lot about it and especially the mythology. It’d be really cool as an aspiring author to have an ancient Egyptian Thoth statue in my house. Well, it turned out that the Egyptians also killed and mummified ibises and buried them with scribes. And a week after I went to the museum, there was an auction for an ibis mummy. And I have it now in my house, still in its bandages, overlooking my desk. And we all know it’s going to come to life and peck out my eyes and write with my blood. But that is one of the recent cool additions.

(01:14:31)
Another thing I have, which is like, in terms of holy crap I’ve made it. I have an original Patrick Nagel painting, and if people don’t know the name, he’s like the ’80s artist. He did the Duran Duran cover. Whenever you see him in nail salons. I have a male, which were very rare for him to do. So that’s two of my kind of favorite pieces.
Lex Fridman
(01:14:49)
You have what?
Michael Malice
(01:14:49)
He only drew women predominantly. I have one where we drew a male. It was a guy in a jean ad or something. And now I’m looking forward to, so Jake made me a three-foot tall sculpture called Future Murmur, which I am ecstatic-
Michael Malice
(01:15:00)
… sculpture called Future Murmur, which I am ecstatic to get.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:06)
Just remind yourself how many fascinating, beautiful people that are out there.
Michael Malice
(01:15:14)
And just the victory and holiness and technology and speed, and how many people have fought so that I could do what I do.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:26)
Yeah. That’s another thing I’m grateful for. Just like the 100 billion or so people that came before us, and also the trillions of lifeforms that came before that.
Michael Malice
(01:15:38)
Oh God, I’ve gone down this trilobite rabbit hole, buying fossils because as a kid I thought trilobites were the coolest thing, and now I’ve got like 15. And what’s interesting is when you buy trilobite fossils on eBay, they’re listed as used, because it’s got to be new or used according to the programming. So it’s used.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:57)
Yeah. But just thinking about all that history, just all the lifeforms that came before. It seems like a really special thing we have going on earth here.
Michael Malice
(01:16:10)
Oh yeah. I think that’s very fair to say, but also think this kind of is like live life to the fullest. Camus talked about living to the point of tears, especially on behalf of people who didn’t have that privilege. So I dedicated the white pill to my parents who got me out of the Soviet Union and all the kids who never could. And it’s like when I die, I want everyone else to not only, they’re obviously going to be happy, but yeah… I’m not here. Live for me, I can’t have that privilege anymore.

Books

Lex Fridman
(01:16:44)
What do you think about Camus as a writer?
Michael Malice
(01:16:47)
I don’t like his novels at all.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:49)
Oh, you don’t?
Michael Malice
(01:16:49)
At all.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:50)
Yeah. You’ve talked about The Plague to me, a little bit.
Michael Malice
(01:16:52)
Yeah. I think the book is pointless.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:55)
It’s fascinating.
Michael Malice
(01:16:56)
Because all you need to do is read the synopsis and then you get it. I don’t think his book-
Lex Fridman
(01:17:00)
Isn’t that true for most books?
Michael Malice
(01:17:01)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:02)
I mean, you could take, I don’t know… I just don’t agree at all. I mean, it’s Catcher in the Rye. There’s a lot of books that are seem trivial.
Michael Malice
(01:17:11)
I don’t think it seems trivial, but I think-
Lex Fridman
(01:17:13)
Animal Farm.
Michael Malice
(01:17:15)
Animal Farm is a methodical step-by-step examination of a transformation from one thing to another. The Plague is not that.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:23)
It’s a methodical examination of what a society is like under the plague, which could symbolize a lot of things, including the plague directly or Nazi Germany or ideological movements, or… It’s similar to Animal Farm. Maybe not as effective in terms of using this kind of symbology-
Michael Malice
(01:17:44)
I think Animal Farm has a narrative and… I’m going to spoil the whole Plague. The book, The Plague. There’s a town, I believe in Oman, a plague descends, people struggle to deal with it, and the plague vanishes as quickly as it came. The end.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:02)
But there’s the victims, the people that take advantage of it. There’s the doctor that, amidst the absurdity and the evil of the plague, is fighting to do good.
Michael Malice
(01:18:11)
Nothing for me. Does nothing for me.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:13)
Okay, well I can spoil the Animal Farm. There’s animals at a farm and the humans are abusing them, and then the animals overthrow the humans, but then the pigs become just like the humans. The lesson, kids, is that power corrupts, no matter whether you walk on four or on two.
Michael Malice
(01:18:40)
I thought the lesson was that pigs are the most human-like animals on the farm.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:47)
I thought the lesson was that there’s no sugar candy mountain.
Michael Malice
(01:18:50)
That’s right. Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:53)
You’ve interviewed a lot of people. What have you learned about getting to the soul of a person, the soul of an idea from interviewing? Just how to do a good interview?
Michael Malice
(01:19:04)
First off, I’m not interviewing just random people. I’m interviewing people who are accomplished. It’s not a random group. That’s self-selecting for something different. But I think that people love to, and this is very understandable, love to feel seen. So if you’re someone who’s done something, even if you’re like the best Guinea pig breeder in America, to have someone interested in your work and listen to what you’re saying… because I remember every book I’ve written, I have friends, and I wouldn’t stop talking about the person I’m writing with or the North Korea. And a certain point, I’m sure they’re like, “All right, I don’t care about this anymore.”But it takes over your brain. You know what I mean?

(01:19:43)
So if you someone who has an interest or a hobby, I’m sure to some extent, maybe your friends or family are sick of talking about it or you don’t want to talk about it with them. That’s the private life where you could just be yourself. So I try to, and this comes from my co-authoring background. When I’m talking to people to ask the questions that they haven’t heard before. There’s a possibility that this actor I’m a huge fan of is going to be on my show. I don’t want to spoil everything. And he’s got a very specific role that he’s known for. And I’m like, “Okay, I know it’s going to be annoying for you talking about this one role, but my goal is to ask questions that you aren’t sick of asking, haven’t been asked.”
Lex Fridman
(01:20:28)
Porn star or…
Michael Malice
(01:20:29)
No, not a porn star.
Lex Fridman
(01:20:32)
That joke failed. Also edit out. What do you know about breeding Guinea pigs? You mentioned it. I’d love to hear-
Michael Malice
(01:20:32)
I don’t know anything.
Lex Fridman
(01:20:42)
I would love to hear more about it.
Michael Malice
(01:20:44)
I always use this as an example. You meet someone at a party who breeds Guinea pigs, right? There’s two approaches. Either you’re weird, okay. Or, “Sit down and tell me everything.” And I’m very much, and all the people I like are the second group. When you meet someone who’s doing something unusual and are passionate about it and are good at it, that to me is the mother load.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:09)
Yeah. That to me also is the thing I enjoy the most, is people-
Michael Malice
(01:21:13)
And then it’s like-
Lex Fridman
(01:21:15)
… that are passionate about a thing.
Michael Malice
(01:21:16)
… who do you guys hate? Do you guys hate the hamster people? Do you hate the rabid people? There’s got to be someone that you guys look down on, because the marine aquarium people look down on the freshwater aquarium people.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:25)
Yeah. It’s a hierarchy.
Michael Malice
(01:21:26)
Yes. There’s always going to be a hierarchy. This is where the left anarchists and I disagree, because they think you can have egalitarianism. There’s going to be a hierarchy.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:33)
Hierarchies emerge.
Michael Malice
(01:21:34)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:35)
There’s no anarchy in the Guinea pig world.
Michael Malice
(01:21:39)
No. It’s just a different kind of anarchy.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:41)
Somebody’s always breeding somebody else.
Michael Malice
(01:21:43)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:44)
And looking down on the others.
Michael Malice
(01:21:47)
Yeah, someone’s the other. Whether it’s the hamster people, the rat people.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:50)
And everybody’s breeding. By the way, are you an anarcho-capitalist? What flavor of anarchist are you?
Michael Malice
(01:21:59)
I’m an anarchist without adjectives. I like them all. The black flag comes in many colors.
Lex Fridman
(01:22:04)
All right. All right. You’re quoting your… No, I understand. It’s a beautiful line in the book.
Michael Malice
(01:22:09)
Thank you. I think the anarcho-capitalists don’t give the left anarchist enough credit, especially for their courage. And I do whatever I can in my power to talk about people like Emma Goldman, whenever possible.
Lex Fridman
(01:22:24)
Do you still think that “are some people better than others” is a good litmus test?
Michael Malice
(01:22:29)
Yes. It’s worked 100% of the time.
Lex Fridman
(01:22:32)
And for you, the answer is yes?
Michael Malice
(01:22:35)
I never answer.
Lex Fridman
(01:22:39)
There’s two of them.
Michael Malice
(01:22:43)
What are you all Hitchcock up in here?
Lex Fridman
(01:22:46)
Oh, hey, careful. I always got your back. What little habits in your life make you happy now that you’re in Austin?
Michael Malice
(01:22:59)
Oh my god. I was prepping for this interview, and I imagined this coming up, and I knew that as I explained this, you know how sometimes when someone tells a story, at first it’s amusing, then it’s amusing and concerned, and then you’re like, “Holy shit, where’s the exit?”
Lex Fridman
(01:23:27)
Yeah. I’m getting nervous already.
Michael Malice
(01:23:30)
You should. So I’m going to tell you something I’ve told only a couple of people. This is my absolutely off the charts, autistic approach to shaving. So I have this insane system. You asked about habits that give me joy. I used to hate shaving. I used to hate it. There’s something called wet shaving. So wet shaving is you get the brush, you get the soap that’s in a canister, you stirred up, you paint your face, and then you shave. The thing is, there are dozens of these shaving soap companies, okay? So I tried a couple of hundred of these soaps, because you’re testing for scent, you’re testing for, with the lather, thickness, and also how smooth of a shave it gives you. I have it down… I’m not making this up. I’m not this creative. I have it down to a cycle of 67 soaps. Okay?
Lex Fridman
(01:24:40)
A cycle.
Michael Malice
(01:24:41)
A cycle. So 67. When I use up one soap, that is a slot that I will have to try new ones, and I will try new ones in that slot until I get one that I like, and then that slot is filled. So right now, I have 67 that I use, and I have 86 candidates.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:05)
Like in the queue?
Michael Malice
(01:25:07)
In the queue.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:07)
Do you label them? Do you remember which one is which?
Michael Malice
(01:25:09)
Well, they all have beautiful labels. I mean, these are artisans who are creating these a amazing things. I would encourage everyone to try this hobby, who’s a guy. It’s so much fun. I will give a shout-out to the companies that are the best. So the best company, in my opinion, is a company called… they just changed the name because… You know what they’re originally called? I’m not joking. Grooming Department. And now it’s like-
Lex Fridman
(01:25:37)
Not a bad name.
Michael Malice
(01:25:38)
Yeah, but it has certain connotations in contemporary discourse.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:42)
Yeah, I understand. Contemporary discourse, yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:25:43)
So now he changed his name to Aion Skincare, A-I-O-N. That’s the sense of the most sophisticated, the most diverse, and the soap is just really high quality. Another amazing company is Barrister and Man. And if I’m going to tell you to try one, it’s called Cheshire. He comes out with new ones every month or so. A lot of it’s miss. A lot of it’s hit. Just great, great quality stuff. Another great company is Chiseled Face. They make something called Midnight Stag, which basically smells like a garage. It’s one of my favorite soaps of all time.
Lex Fridman
(01:26:16)
What makes for a good smell for Michael Malice?
Michael Malice
(01:26:19)
I have 67 answers. So some of them smell-
Lex Fridman
(01:26:22)
So you can’t convert it into words?
Michael Malice
(01:26:24)
Some are citrusy, some are industrial, some-
Lex Fridman
(01:26:27)
So garage is more industrial.
Michael Malice
(01:26:28)
It smells like a garage. Yeah. Midnight Stag. It smells like a garage. Some are fun. There smells that smell like other things. For example, there’s a scent in my queue called Finding Scotty. It smells like Swedish Fish. Another great company is Phoenix Shaving, and they have one called Aloha Smackdown. It smells like Hawaiian Punch. They had one called Yule Ham that they made for me special. Smells like a ham. They had a ramen one, Rock and Ramen. Smells a cup of noodles. And every year they do an advent calendar where for 12 days you have a little sample of a soap and a sample of the aftershave.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:04)
Nice.
Michael Malice
(01:27:06)
I’m forgetting someone and I’m feeling angry that I’m doing it. But those are some of the… Oh, and Catie’s Bubbles is great. They’re vegan, out of New Jersey. They’ve got one called a Knee High to a Grape. It smells like grape soda. I think those are the biggest names off the top of my head.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:25)
Will that list converge down to a small set eventually, or no? 67 down to-
Michael Malice
(01:27:31)
Well, no, it’s 67.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:33)
Oh, so it always keeps [inaudible 01:27:35]-
Michael Malice
(01:27:35)
So if there’s a slot, then, you know what I mean? I’ll fill that. You see what I’m saying?
Lex Fridman
(01:27:39)
Oh, so you will forever have the variety of 67?
Michael Malice
(01:27:41)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:46)
You know how sad my brain is? When you were telling me this, I was like, “I wonder how many soaps are left in Michael Malice’s life.” You can count your life by days, by month, by years, or by soaps.
Michael Malice
(01:28:01)
That is depressing. That is very dark.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:03)
Because each experience of shaving is a little beautiful experience.
Michael Malice
(01:28:07)
Yes, it is. It’s so much fun.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:09)
How many do you have left in your life, right?
Michael Malice
(01:28:10)
That’s true.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:11)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:28:12)
I got to tell you, there’s something else. There’s a term my friend Jackie taught me called Touching Pan. It’s a makeup term. So basically when you use it and you could see the bottom, that’s like a big moment.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:24)
Oh, it’s a great thing.
Michael Malice
(01:28:24)
Yeah. Well, it’s kind of fun. I’m telling you, people can scoff. It is such a fun… and there’s a lot of us online who are into this whole space. It’s really, really fun.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:34)
When did you first discover this?
Michael Malice
(01:28:36)
Can I curse?
Lex Fridman
(01:28:37)
Yeah.
Michael Malice
(01:28:38)
Fuck you, Cole Stryker. Because I was staying at my friend Cole’s house in LA. Fuck you Cole.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:45)
Fuck you, Cole.
Michael Malice
(01:28:46)
Cole is one of the biggest hipsters I know. He’s got the shirts with the pearl snaps and everything. And I’m staying at his house because I was doing Rogan, and he goes, “Oh, have you heard of this wet shaving thing?” And he goes, “Look, this one’s Proraso. That’s the Italian grandpa soap, which is also a great one. And I went down this rabbit hole, and now I’m like… I don’t even know how much money I spent on this. And it’s all because of him.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:09)
Oh. But it’s like a happy fuck you. Like, fuck you, Cole.
Michael Malice
(01:29:09)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:12)
I love you, Cole. Fuck you.
Michael Malice
(01:29:13)
Yeah, it’s just-
Lex Fridman
(01:29:14)
Thank you.
Michael Malice
(01:29:15)
Yes, yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:16)
That’s a good idea for a tattoo. Fuck you, Cole. Do you have advice on how to be happy?

How to be happy

Michael Malice
(01:29:25)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:29:26)
There’s a lot of loneliness and sadness in the world.
Michael Malice
(01:29:31)
I can give a very easy piece of advice that worked a lot for me. Instead of telling yourself that you have these ridiculous standards, tell yourself, “I can be better. I don’t have to be a great writer. I could be a better writer. I don’t have to be a great podcaster. That will never happen. I could be a better podcaster. I could be a better person. I could be better at the gym. I could be better with my time.” And when you regard things in… and especially if you have metrics that you can go by. “I’ll run this many miles a day.” Things you have control over. Especially as males, when you have this chart and the data is telling you you’re improving, right away, it’s like you have this sense of accomplishment. So I think that is a really great way to…

(01:30:25)
And if something is not working in your life… Let’s suppose you don’t have friends. Right? There’s the internet. How do people make friends? Try things out? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Things will blow up in your face. Well, you’ll learn something at least. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. When I was a kid, I was so scared of having things under control, so like I would never have to get hit in the face metaphorically. And then I realized, and you realized this as well, everyone who’s important gets hit in the face. Look at the president, whoever the president is. It becomes a matter of being strong enough that you could take getting hit in the face. So that is a big important switch in your thinking.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:05)
Yeah. There’s a Bukowski quote I wrote down. “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it. But you laugh inside, remembering all the times you felt that way.”
Michael Malice
(01:31:16)
Yeah, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:17)
There’s a part of me that’s like that. There’s some days where I feel like this is the worst day of my life. And then shortly after, I chuckle at that.
Michael Malice
(01:31:26)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:26)
Just knowing the ups and downs of the brain and the mind and life and all that. You ever been depressed?

Depression

Michael Malice
(01:31:32)
Yeah, of course. I’m more anxious than depressed. I don’t really get depressed, but I’ve been depressed.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:38)
Like low points.
Michael Malice
(01:31:39)
Yeah. But I think I distinguish depression between low points, right? If things are going bad and you feel bad, that makes sense. But when I think of depression, I think of someone who feels bad when things aren’t bad. To me, it’s almost by definition irrational.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:55)
Well, yeah. And there’s different kinds of… There’s a exhausted kind of depression where it’s not so much sad as you don’t want to do anything. You don’t want to live. You don’t want to-
Michael Malice
(01:32:09)
Yeah. What’s the point? It’s a wrap, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:10)
What’s the point? What’s the point? And an extreme self-critical negativity, which I’m also scared of because my brain is generally very self-critical.
Michael Malice
(01:32:19)
Because you’re not taking enough magnesium.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:21)
Do you take a rectally or in the mouth?
Michael Malice
(01:32:23)
You take a rectally.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:24)
Okay.
Michael Malice
(01:32:25)
But as for the magnesium, you should take it as a pill.

Fear

Lex Fridman
(01:32:28)
Okay. Well, the way your mom explained it then is way different. What are you most afraid of?
Michael Malice
(01:32:47)
Holy crap. I am trying to think of anything I’m afraid of.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:51)
In 1984-
Michael Malice
(01:32:54)
I thought even just-
Lex Fridman
(01:32:55)
Look, if I wanted to torture you, hypothetically…
Michael Malice
(01:32:59)
Well, the mission accomplished. I mean, I’m scared of increasing authoritarianism, but that’s not personal. And that’s something that I don’t think is as much of an imminent concern as let’s say in Canada.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:15)
Are you scared of death?
Michael Malice
(01:33:17)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:17)
You think Camus was scared of death?
Michael Malice
(01:33:20)
No.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:22)
He just accepted it as-
Michael Malice
(01:33:24)
Look, I honestly feel like if I died tomorrow, I did pretty good with what I had. I think I did things that matter to me. I think I moved the needle on things that matter to me. I think I’ve been a good friend to the people I care about. I’ve saved a couple of lives. So I think it’s a very low bar for someone to be able to grow their grave and say, “I left the world a better place than I found it.” I don’t think it’s that hard.

Betrayal

Lex Fridman
(01:34:01)
You ever been betrayed?
Michael Malice
(01:34:03)
Oh god, yes. Of course. Haven’t you?
Lex Fridman
(01:34:07)
Not as often as I would’ve predicted.
Michael Malice
(01:34:09)
Yeah. The Russian upbringing expects everyone to be like… it’s a time bomb before they betray you. I have been betrayed. Of course. Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:34:16)
Yeah. You value loyalty?
Michael Malice
(01:34:20)
I do. And I also made it a point to not let that betrayal color my future interactions and regard that as the universal or the norm. I think that’s very important.
Lex Fridman
(01:34:32)
Me too.
Michael Malice
(01:34:34)
And also, I feel bad. I’ve gotten, Lex, enough that I feel bad for the person who betrayed me, because it’s just like they didn’t need to do this. And at some point, if you betray someone, you know, and you know you’re not a good person. I believe that. Like even if you tell yourself, “This is something I had to do,” you still know you had to do a bad thing to someone who didn’t deserve it. And that’s a really hard pill to swallow.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:02)
In my situation, I still think good thoughts and empathize with the people that have done me wrong.
Michael Malice
(01:35:11)
I don’t empathize with them, but I sympathize with them.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:14)
My English is not good enough to know the difference.
Michael Malice
(01:35:16)
Empathizing means you’re putting yourself in their shoes. Sympathizing means you feel bad for them and wish them well.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:25)
Yeah, I wish them well.
Michael Malice
(01:35:27)
Yeah, but I don’t put myself… it’s very hard for me to empathize with someone who betrays someone that they care about. It’s not that just I think I’m such a great person. It’s that I feel guilt very strongly. So if I did that to someone who trusted me, it would up my head for a long time.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:46)
Yeah, but maybe they were in pain. Maybe they were desperate. Maybe their back’s to the wall.
Michael Malice
(01:35:53)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:53)
They felt that way.
Michael Malice
(01:35:54)
Sure. Well, that’s a sympathy thing. Not really an empathy thing.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:56)
Yeah. Yeah. Loyalty is a fascinating thing.
Michael Malice
(01:36:03)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:04)
I value trust a lot.
Michael Malice
(01:36:05)
I know you do. Especially because you’re in such a public… Both of us, we’re in very public positions. You have to be very careful who you surround yourself with.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:13)
It sucks.
Michael Malice
(01:36:14)
Does it? Well, it’s-
Lex Fridman
(01:36:16)
Well, it sucks because it’s hard to… I usually just trust everybody.
Michael Malice
(01:36:25)
Okay, that’s crazy.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:29)
But what’s the alternative?
Michael Malice
(01:36:30)
To have a filter?
Lex Fridman
(01:36:33)
Well, I have a filter in terms of who I interact with, but within the… I see the good in people, but then in the very rare instances that might turn. Yeah. It just sucks. It breaks my heart.
Michael Malice
(01:36:48)
Yeah, I hear you. I completely agree.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:52)
Has your heart ever been broken?
Michael Malice
(01:36:54)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:55)
Love?
Michael Malice
(01:36:56)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:01)
I’m just so relaxed right now, and happy.
Michael Malice
(01:37:03)
Good.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:04)
Relaxed sand happy.
Michael Malice
(01:37:05)
Good.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:06)
This is making me really happy.
Michael Malice
(01:37:09)
Again, it’s beautiful on like eight different levels.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:11)
I think that’s the deepest thing I’m thankful for, is just how beautiful people are and how beautiful the world is.
Michael Malice
(01:37:21)
People are going to laugh, and I welcome it. That’s fine. I really sometimes feel like the guy in American Beauty looking at the plastic bag dancing in the wind, and he’s brought to tears because of how much beautiful life is. And a lot of people feel the need to sneer at that scene and Ricky Pitts, whatever, and I think he’s got it exactly right.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:45)
I think he does too. Well, in the end, you and I will be both laughing,
Michael Malice
(01:37:53)
Right. And also seeing beauty where other people see garbage. And I’d rather be the person who sees beauty than the person who sees garbage.
Lex Fridman
(01:38:02)
Yep. Well, when I look at you, I see beauty when most people see garbage. And it’s really unfair, Mr. Parrot, that you keep saying that. But all jokes aside, man, I’m really grateful for your friendship. I’m really grateful for who you are as a person. Thank you so much for talking today. Thank you so much for talking to me throughout all these years. Thank you for being who you are.
Michael Malice
(01:38:28)
You are welcome.
Lex Fridman
(01:38:31)
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Michael Malice. To support this podcast. Please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, let me leave you with some words from Andre Gide. Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

Transcript for John Mearsheimer: Israel-Palestine, Russia-Ukraine, China, NATO, and WW3 | Lex Fridman Podcast #401

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #401 with John Mearsheimer.
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Introduction

Lex Fridman
(00:00:00)
The following is a conversation with John Mearsheimer, a professor at University of Chicago and one of the most influential and controversial thinkers in the world. He teaches, speaks and writes about the nature of power and war on the global stage, in history and today.

(00:00:19)
Please allow me to say, once again, my hope for this little journey I’m on. I will speak to everyone on all sides with compassion, with empathy, and with backbone. I’ll speak with Vladimir Putin and with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with Russians and with Ukrainians, with Israelis and with Palestinians, with everyone. My goal is to do whatever small part I can to decrease the amount of suffering in the world by trying to reveal our common humanity. I believe that in the end, truth and love wins. I will get attacked for being naive, for being a shill, for being weak. I’m none of those things, but I do make mistakes and I will get better. I love you all.

(00:01:19)
This is a Lex Fridman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s John Mearsheimer.

Power


(00:01:29)
Can you explain your view on power in international politics as outlined in your book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and in your writing since then?
John Mearsheimer
(00:01:39)
Yeah, I make two sets of points there. First of all, I believe that power is the currency of international relations, and by that I mean that states are deeply interested in the balance of power and they’re interested in maximizing how much power they control. And the question is why do states care so much about power. In the international system, there’s no higher authority, so if you get into trouble and you dial 911, there’s nobody at the other end. In a system like that, you have no choice but to figure out for yourself how best to protect yourself. And the best way to protect yourself is to be powerful, to have as much power as you can possibly gain over all the other states in the system. Therefore, states care about power because it enhances or maximizes their prospects for survival.

(00:02:39)
Second point I would make is that in the realist story or in my story, power is largely a function of material factors. The two key building blocks of power are population size and wealth. You want to have a lot of people and you want to be really wealthy. Of course, this is why the United States is so powerful. It has lots of people and it has lots of wealth. China was not considered a great power until recently because it didn’t have a lot of wealth. It certainly had population size, but it didn’t have wealth. And without both a large population and much wealth, you’re usually not considered a great power. So I think power matters, but when we talk about power, it’s important to understand that it’s population size and wealth that are underpinning it.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:38)
So there’s a lot of interesting things there. First you said nations in relation to each other is essentially in a state of anarchism.
John Mearsheimer
(00:03:48)
Yeah, well, anarchy basically means the opposite of hierarchy. Sometimes people think when you’re talking about anarchy, you’re talking about murder and mayhem, but that’s not what anarchy means in the realist context. Anarchy simply means that you don’t have hierarchy. There’s no higher authority that sits above states. States are like pool balls on a table. And in an anarchic world, there’s no higher authority that you can turn to if you get into trouble.

(00:04:22)
And of course the political philosopher who laid this all out was Thomas Hobbes. And Hobbes talked about life in the state of nature, and in the state of nature you have individuals and those individuals compete with each other for power. And the reason that they do is because in the state of nature, by definition, you have no higher authority. And Hobbes’s view is that the way to get out of this terrible situation where individuals are competing with each other and even killing each other is to create a state. It’s what he calls the Leviathan, and that of course is the title of his famous book.

(00:05:02)
So the idea is to escape anarchy, you create a state, and that means you go from anarchy to hierarchy. The problem in international politics is that there is no world state, there is no hierarchy. And if you have no hierarchy and you’re in an anarchic system, you have no choice but to try to maximize your relative power to make sure you are, as we used to say when I was a kid on New York City playgrounds, the biggest and baddest dude on the block. Not because you necessarily want to beat up on other kids or on other states, but because again, that’s the best way to survive.

(00:05:47)
And as I like to point out to people, the best example of what happens when you’re weak in international politics is what the Chinese call the century of national humiliation. From the late 1840s to the late 1940s the Chinese were remarkably weak, and the great powers in the system preyed upon them. And that sends a very important message to not only the Chinese, but to other states in the system. Don’t be weak, be as powerful as you can.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:18)
And we’ll talk about it, but humiliation can lead to resentment or resentment leads to something you’ve also studied, which is Nazi Germany in the 1930s. We’ll talk about it, but staying to the psychology and philosophy picture, what’s the connection between the will to power in the individual, as you mentioned, and the will to power in a nation?
John Mearsheimer
(00:06:43)
The will to power in an individual has a lot to do with individual psychology. The story that I tell about the pursuit of power is a structural argument. It’s an argument that says when you are in a particular structure, when you’re in a system that has a specific architecture which is anarchy, the states have no choice but to compete for power. So structure is really driving the story here. Will to power has a lot more to do with an individual in the Nietzschen story where that concept comes from. So it’s very important to understand that I’m not arguing that states are inherently aggressive. My point is that as long as states are in anarchy, they have no choice but to behave in an aggressive fashion. But if you went to a hierarchic system, there’s no reason for those states to worry about the balance of power, because if they get into trouble there is a higher authority that they can turn to. There is in effect a leviathan.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:59)
So what is the role of military might in this will to power on the national level?
John Mearsheimer
(00:08:06)
Well, military mights is what ultimately matters. As I said to you before, the two building blocks of power are population size and wealth.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:16)
You didn’t mention military mights.
John Mearsheimer
(00:08:17)
I did not, no. That’s right. And it’s good that you caught that because if you have a large population and you’re a wealthy country, what you do is you build a large military, and it’s ultimately the size of your military that matters because militaries fight wars. And if states are concerned about survival, which I argue is the principle goal of every state in the international system for what I think are obvious reasons, then they’re going to care about having a powerful military that can protect them if another state comes after them.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:55)
Well, it’s not obvious that a large nation with a lot of people and a lot of money should necessarily build a gigantic army and seek to attain dominant soul superpower status to military might. But you’re saying, as you see the world today, it has to be that way.
John Mearsheimer
(00:09:16)
Yeah, I’m arguing it is obvious. If you’re a state in the international system, do you want to be weak? If you live next door to Nazi Germany or Imperial Germany or Napoleonic France or even the United States… The United States is a ruthless great power, you surely recognize that. And if you’re dealing with the United States of America and you’re Vladimir Putin, you want to make sure you’re as powerful as possible so that the United States doesn’t put its gun sights on you and come after you. Same thing is true with China. You want to be powerful in the international system.

(00:09:50)
States understand that, and they go to great lengths to become powerful. Just take the United States of America. When it started in 1783, it was comprised of 13 measly colonies strung out along the Atlantic seaboard. Over time, the various leaders of the United States went to great lengths to turn that country into the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. And then once that was achieved in 1900, we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that there’s no pier competitor in the system. We just want to make sure that we’re number one.

(00:10:33)
And my argument is that this is not peculiar to the United States. If I’m China, for example, today, I would want to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. They’d be fools not to. If I were imperial Germany, I’d want to dominate all of Europe the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. Why? Because if you dominate all of Europe, assuming you’re Imperial Germany or Napoleonic France, then no other state in the area or in the region can threaten you because you’re simply so powerful.

(00:11:12)
And again, what I’m saying here is that the structure of the international system really matters. It’s the fact that you’re in this anarchic system where survival is your principle goal and where I can’t know your intentions, right? You’re another state. I can’t know that at some point you might not come after me. You might. And if you’re really powerful and I’m not, I’m in deep trouble.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:37)
Yeah. So some of the ideas underlying what you’ve said, offensive realism, which I would love to talk to you about sort of the history of realism versus liberalism, but some of the ideas you already mentioned, anarchy between states, everybody’s trying to develop military capabilities, uncertainty, such an interesting concept. States cannot be sure that other states will not use military capabilities against them, which is one-
John Mearsheimer
(00:12:07)
That’s of enormous importance to the story,
Lex Fridman
(00:12:09)
…really important, and so interesting because you also say that this makes realists more cautious and more peaceful, the uncertainty because of all the uncertainty involved here, it’s better to approach international politics with caution, which is really interesting to think about. Again, survival, most states interested in survival. And the other interesting thing is you assume all the states are rational, which-
John Mearsheimer
(00:12:40)
Most of the time.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:41)
Most of the time. You call this framework offensive realism. Can you just give an overview of the history of the realism versus liberalism debate as worldviews?
John Mearsheimer
(00:12:56)
Well, I think for many centuries now, the big divide within the world of international relations theory is between realism and liberalism. These are time honored bodies of theory. And before I tell you what I think the differences are between those two bodies of theory, it is important to emphasize that there are differences among realists and differences among liberals. And so when you talk about me as an offensive realist, you should understand that there are also defensive realists out there, and there are a panoply of liberal theories as well.

(00:13:42)
But basically realists believe that power matters, that states compete for power, and that war is an instrument of statecraft. And liberals, on the other hand, have what I would say is a more idealistic view of the world. This is not to say that they’re naive or foolish, but they believe there are aspects of international politics that lead to a less competitive and more peaceful world than most realists say. And I’ll lay out for you very quickly, what are the three major liberal theories today that I think will give you a sense of the more optimistic perspective that is inherent in the liberal enterprise.

(00:14:40)
The first and most important of the liberal theories is democratic peace theory, and this is a theory that says democracies do not fight against other democracies. So the more the world is populated with democracies, the less likely it is that we will have wars. And this basic argument is inherent in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. He argues that democracy triumphed first over fascism in the 20th century, it then triumphed over communism, and that means that in the future we’re going to have more and more liberal democracies on the planet. And if you have more and more liberal democracies and those democracies don’t fight each other, then you have a more peaceful world. That was his argument. It’s a very liberal argument.

(00:15:36)
A realist like me would say that it doesn’t matter whether a state is a democracy or not, all states behave the same way because the structure of the system, getting back to our earlier discussion about international anarchy, the structure of the system leaves those states no choice, whether they’re democracies or autocracies. And again, the liberal view, this first liberal theory, is that democracies don’t fight other democracies, and therefore the more democracies you have, the more peaceful the world.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:12)
Can I just sort of try to unpack that a little bit? So the democratic peace theory, I guess, would say that in democracies leaders are elected, and the underlying assumption is most people want peace, and so they will elect peacemakers. So the more democracies you have, the more likely you have peace. And then the realist perspective says that it doesn’t matter if the majority of people want peace. The structure of international politics is such that superpowers want to become more super and powerful, and they do that through war.
John Mearsheimer
(00:16:51)
You can’t make that argument that you’re making about democracies, because if you’re saying that democracies are inclined toward peace and that the electorate picks leaders who are inclined towards peace, then you have to show that democracies are, in general, more peaceful than non democracies, and you can’t support that argument. You can find lots of evidence to support the argument that democracies don’t fight other democracies.

(00:17:25)
So the argument I believe that you have to make, if you’re going to support democratic peace theory, the main argument you have to make is that liberal democracies have a healthy respect for each other and they can assess each other’s intentions. If you’re a liberal democracy, and I’m a liberal democracy, we know we have value systems that argue against aggression, and argue for peaceful resolution of crises. And therefore, given these norms, we can trust each other, we can know each other’s intentions. Remember, for realists like me, uncertainty about intentions really helps drive the train. But if you’re talking about two democracies, the argument there is that they know each other’s intentions.
Lex Fridman
(00:18:19)
And for you, sure, maybe democracies reduce uncertainty a little bit, but not enough to stop the train.
John Mearsheimer
(00:18:26)
I think that’s right, yeah. That’s right. So that’s democratic peace theory. The second theory is economic interdependence theory, and that’s the argument that, in a globalized world like the one that we live in and have lived in for a long time, there’s a great deal of economic interdependence. And if you and I are two countries, or if you and me are two countries and we’re economically interdependent and we’re both getting prosperous as a result of this economic intercourse, the last thing that we’re going to do is start a war, either one of us, because who would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, it’s that kind of argument. So there you have an argument that economic interdependence leads to peace.

(00:19:09)
And then the third liberal argument has to do with institutions, sometimes referred to as liberal institutionalism. And this is the argument that if you can get states into institutions where they become rule abiding actors, they will obey the rules that dictate that war is not acceptable. So if you get them to accept the UN rules on when you can and cannot initiate a war, then you’ll have a more peaceful world. So those are the liberal theories, and as you can tell, they’re very different from realism as articulated by somebody like me.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:57)
Can you maybe argue against the economic interdependence and in the institutions that institutions follow rules a little bit? So the golden goose with the golden egg, you’re saying that nations are happy to kill the goose because again, they want power.
John Mearsheimer
(00:20:19)
If they think it’s necessary to kill the golden goose because of security concerns, they will do it. The point is that economic interdependence at its root has prosperity as the core variable. In the realest story, the core variable is survival, and survival always trumps prosperity. So if you go back to the period before World War I, we’re in Europe, it’s 1913 or early 1914, what you see is that you have an intense security competition between all of the great powers. On one side you have the Triple Alliance, and on the other side you have the Triple Entente. You have these two alliances, and you have an intense security competition between them. At the same time, you have a great deal of economic interdependence. It’s amazing how much economic intercourse is taking place in Europe among all the actors. And people are getting prosperous or countries are getting prosperous as a result. But nevertheless, in the famous July crisis of 1914, this economic prosperity is unable to prevent World War I because security concerns or survival is more important. So there are going to be lots of situations where prosperity and survival come into conflict, and in those cases, survival will win.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:59)
And maybe you can speak to the different camps of realists. You said offensive and defensive. Can you draw a distinction between those two?
John Mearsheimer
(00:22:09)
Yeah. Let me just back up a bit on that one. And you were talking about will to power before. The first big divide between realists is structural realists and human nature realists, and Hans Morgenthau, who was influenced by nature and therefore had that will to power logic embedded in his thinking about how the world works, he was a human nature realist. I’m a structural realist and I believe it’s not human nature, it’s not individuals in some will to power that drives competition and war. What drives competition and war is the structure of the system. It’s anarchy.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:03)
So you’re not as romantic as the human nature realists.
John Mearsheimer
(00:23:06)
Yeah. There’s just a world of difference between the two. It’s just important to understand that.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:12)
So within that, from the structural, there’s a subdivision also of offensive and defensive.
John Mearsheimer
(00:23:17)
Yes. Inside the structural realist world. And you have a handful of realists who believe that the structure of the system fosters competition, for sure, security competition. But it really rules out great power war almost all the time. So it makes sense to care about the balance of power, but to focus on maintaining how much power you have. That’s the defensive realism, maintaining how much power you have. Not trying to gain more power, because the argument the defense of realists make is that if you try to gain more power, the system will punish you, the structure will punish you. I’m not a defensive realist, I’m an offensive realist. And my argument is that states look for opportunities to gain more power, and every time they see, or almost every time they see an opportunity to gain more power, and they think the likelihood of success is high and the cost will not be great, they’ll jump at that opportunity.

Hitler

Lex Fridman
(00:24:39)
Just to linger on the human nature perspective, how do you explain Hitler and Nazi Germany, just one of the more recent aggressive expansions through military might? How do you explain that in the framework of offensive realism?
John Mearsheimer
(00:25:04)
Well, I think that Nazi Germany was driven in large part by structural considerations. And I think if you look at Imperial Germany, which was largely responsible for starting World War I, and of course Nazi Germany’s largely responsible for starting World War II, what that tells you is you didn’t need Adolf Hitler to start World War I. And I believe that there is a good chance you would’ve had World War II in the absence of Hitler. I believe that Germany was very powerful, it was deeply worried about the balance of power in Europe, and it had strong incentives to behave aggressively in the late 1930s, early 1940s. So I believe that structure mattered.

(00:25:54)
However, I want to qualify that in the case of Adolf Hitler, because I do think he had what you would call a will to power. I’ve never used that word to describe him before, but it’s consistent with my point that I often make, that there are two leaders, or there have been two leaders in modern history who are congenital aggressors, and one was Napoleon and the other was Hitler. Now, if you want to call that a will to power, you can do that. I’m more comfortable referring to Hitler as a congenital aggressor and referring to Napoleon as a congenital aggressor, although there were important differences between the two, because Hitler was probably the most murderous leader in recorded history, and Napoleon was not in that category at all. But both of them were driven by what you would call a will to power, and that has to be married to the structural argument in Hitler’s case, and also in Napoleon’s case.
Lex Fridman
(00:27:02)
Is there some degree on the human psychology side that resentment, because of what happened after World War I, led to Hitler willing so much power, and then Hitler starting World War II? So this is the human side. Perhaps the reason I asked that question is also because you mentioned the century of humiliation on the China side. So to which degree does humiliation lead to Hitler and lead to World War II?
John Mearsheimer
(00:27:33)
Well, the question of what led to Hitler is a very different question than the question of what led to World War II once Hitler was in power. I mean, after January 30th, 1933, he’s in power. And then the question of what is driving him comes racing to the fore. Is there resentment over the Versailles treaty and what happened to Germany? Yes. Did that matter? Yes. But my argument is that structure was the principle factor driving the train in Hitler’s case. But what I’m saying here is that there were other factors that as well, resentment being one of them. Will to power or the fact that he was a congenital aggressor in my lexicon certainly mattered as well, so I don’t want to dismiss your point about resentment.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:29)
So Hitler in particular, the way he wielded, the way he gained so much power, might have been the general resentment of the populace or the German populace.
John Mearsheimer
(00:28:41)
I think that as a result of defeat in World War I and all the trials and tribulations associated with Weimar Germany, and then the coming of the Great Depression, all of those factors definitely account for his coming to power. I think that one of the reasons that he was so successful at winning over the German people once he came to power was because there was a great deal of resentment in the German body politic. And he played on that resentment, that surely helped him get elected too. But I think having studied the case, it was even more important once he took over.

(00:29:32)
I also believe that one of the principal reasons that he was so popular and he was wildly popular inside Nazi Germany is because he was the only leader of an industrialized country who pulled his country out of the depression. And that really mattered, and it made him very effective. It’s also worth noting that he was a remarkably charismatic individual. I find that hard to believe because every time I look at him or listen to his speeches, he does not appear to be charismatic to me. But I’ve talked to a number of people who are experts on this subject who assure me that he was very charismatic. And I would note to you, if you look at public opinion polls in Germany, West Germany, in the late 1940s, this is the late 1940s after the Third Reich is destroyed in 1945, he is still remarkably popular in the polls.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:31)
Stalin is still popular in many parts of Eastern Europe.
John Mearsheimer
(00:30:36)
Yeah, yeah. And Stalin’s popular in many quarters inside Russia, and Stalin murdered more of his own people than he murdered people outside of the Soviet Union.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:50)
And still to you, the tides of history turned not on individuals, but on structural considerations. So Hitler may be a surface-layer characteristics of how Germany started war, but not really the reason.
John Mearsheimer
(00:31:09)
Well, history is a multidimensional phenomenon-
Lex Fridman
(00:31:14)
So I hear.
John Mearsheimer
(00:31:15)
… and we’re talking about interstate relations here, and realism is a theory about how states interact with each other, and there are many other dimensions to international politics. And if you’re talking about someone like Adolf Hitler, why did he start World War II is a very different question than why did he start the Holocaust or why did he push forward a holocaust? I mean, that’s a different question, and realism doesn’t answer that question. So I want to be very clear that I’m not someone who argues that realism answers every question about international politics, but it does answer what is one of the big, if not the biggest, questions that IR scholars care about, which is what causes security competition and what causes great power war.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:10)
Does offensive realism answer the question why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union?
John Mearsheimer
(00:32:17)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:18)
Because from a military strategy perspective, there’s pros and cons to that decision.
John Mearsheimer
(00:32:25)
Pros and cons to every decision. The question is, did he think that he could win a quick and decisive victory. And he did, as did his generals. It’s very interesting, I’ve spent a lot of time studying German decision making in World War II. If you look at the German decision to invade Poland on September 1st, 1939, and you look at the German decision to invade France on May 10th, 1940, and then the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, what you see is there was actually quite a bit of resistance to Hitler in 1938 at the time of Czechoslovakia, Munich, and there was also quite a bit of resistance in September, 1939.
Lex Fridman
(00:33:13)
Internally? Or you mean…
John Mearsheimer
(00:33:14)
Internally, internally. For sure. Yeah. People had doubts. They didn’t think the Wehrmacht was ready, and given the fact that World War I had just ended about 20 years before, the thought of starting another European war was not especially attractive to lots of German policy makers, including military leaders. And then came France 1940. In the run-up to May 10th, 1940, there was huge resistance in the German army to attacking France. But that was eventually eliminated because they came up with a clever plan, the Manstein Plan. If you look at the decision to invade the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, which is the only case where they fail… They succeeded in France, they succeeded in Poland, they succeeded at Munich in 1938. Soviet Union is where they fail. There’s hardly any resistance at all, right?
Lex Fridman
(00:34:20)
Yeah. Well, and to say that they failed the Soviet Union, my grandfather fought for the Soviet Union, there was a lot of successes early on. So there’s poor military, I would say, strategic decisions along the way, but it caught Stalin off guard. Maybe you can correct me, but from my perspective, terrifyingly so, they could have been successful if certain different decisions were made from a military perspective.
John Mearsheimer
(00:34:54)
Yeah. I’ve always had the sense they came terrifyingly close to winning. You can make the opposite argument that they were doomed-
John Mearsheimer
(00:35:03)
You can make the opposite argument that they were doomed. But I’m not terribly comfortable making that argument. I think the Wehrmacht, by the summer of 1941, was a finely tuned instrument for war, and the Red Army was in quite terrible shape. Stalin had purged the Officer Corps, they had performed poorly in Finland, and there were all sorts of reasons to think that they were no match for the Wehrmacht.

(00:35:36)
And if you look at what happened in the initial stages of the conflict, that proved to be the case. The Germans won a lot of significant tactical victories early on.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:49)
And if they focused and went to Moscow as quickly as possible, again, terrifyingly, so could have been, basically topple Stalin. And one thing that’s-
John Mearsheimer
(00:36:03)
That’s possible.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:04)
That’s possible.
John Mearsheimer
(00:36:05)
Fortunately, we’re not going to run the experiment again, but one could argue that, had they concentrated as the generals wanted to do, in going straight from Moscow, that they would’ve won. I mean, what Hitler wanted to do is, he wanted to go into the Ukraine. I mean, Hitler thought that the main Axis… There were three Axes. The northern Axis went towards Leningrad, the central Axis of course, went to Moscow, and then the Southern Axis, Army Group South, headed towards Ukraine and deep into the caucuses.

(00:36:39)
And Hitler believed that that should have been the main Axis. And in fact, in 1942, the Soviets, excuse me, the Germans go back on the offensive in 1942. This is Operation Blue, and the main Axis in ’42 is deep into the Ukraine and into the caucuses, and that fails.

(00:37:01)
But one could argue that, had they done that in ’41, had they not gone to Moscow, had they gone, had they concentrated on going deep into Ukraine and into the caucuses, they could have knocked the Soviets out that way. I’m not sure that in the end I believe that. I think in the end the Soviets would’ve won no matter what, but I’m not a hundred percent sure of that.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:28)
Sometimes, maybe you can educate me, but sometimes they say, just like with Napoleon, winter defeated Hitler in Russia. I think not often enough people tell the story of the soldiers and the motivation and how hard they fight. So it turns out that Ukrainians and Russians are not easy to conquer. They’re the kinds of people that don’t roll over and fight bravely. There seems to be a difference in certain peoples, in how they see war, how they approach war, how proud they are to fight for their country, to die for their country, these kinds of things. So I think Battle of Stalingrad tells, at least to me, a story of extremely brave fighting on the Soviet side, and that, it’s a component of war too. It’s not just structural, it’s not just military strategy, it’s also the humans involved, but maybe that’s a romantic notion of war.
John Mearsheimer
(00:38:33)
No, I think there’s a great deal of truth in that, but let’s just unpack it a bit in the case of the Soviet Union in World War II. The counterargument to that is that in World War I, the Russian Army disintegrated. And if you look at what happened when Napoleon invaded in 1812, and you look at what happened in 1917, and then you look at what happened between ’41 and ’45, the Napoleon case looks a lot like the Hitler case, and it fits neatly with your argument.

(00:39:14)
But World War I does not fit neatly with your argument because the Russians lost and surrendered, and you had the infamous treaty of Brest-Litovsk, where the Soviet Union then, because it went from Russia to the Soviet Union in October 1917, the Soviet Union surrendered large amounts of Soviet territory because it had suffered a humiliating defeat.

(00:39:38)
My argument for why the Russians, let me take that back, why the Soviets fought like wild dogs in World War II is that they were up against a genocidal adversary. You want to understand that the Germans murdered huge numbers of Soviet POWs. The overall total was 3.7 million. And by December, December of 1941, remember the invasion is June ’41, by December of 1941, the Germans have murdered 2 million Soviet POWs. At that point in time, they had murdered many more POWs than they had murdered Jews.

(00:40:20)
And this is not to deny for one second that they were on a murderous rampage when it came to Jews, but they were also on a murderous rampage when it came to Soviet citizens and Soviet soldiers. So those Soviet soldiers quickly came to understand they were fighting for their lives. If they were taken prisoner, they would die. So they fought like wild dogs.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:48)
Yeah, the story of the Holocaust, of the 6 million Jews, is often told extensively. If Hitler won, conquered the Soviet Union, it’s terrifying to think, on a much grander scale than the Holocaust, what would’ve happened to the Slavic people, to the Soviet people.
John Mearsheimer
(00:41:08)
Absolutely. All you have to do is read the Hunger Plan, right? And they also had a plan, what was it called? Grand Planned East, I forget the exact name of it, which made it clear that they were going to murder many tens of millions of people. And by the way, I believe that they would’ve murdered all the Poles and all the Roma. I mean, my view is that the Jews were number one on the genocidal hit list. The Roma, or the gypsies, were number two, and the Poles were number three.

(00:41:42)
And of course, I just explained to you how many POWs they had killed. So they would’ve ended up murdering huge numbers of Soviet citizens as well. But people quickly figured out that this was happening, that’s my point to you. And that gave them, needless to say, very powerful incentives to fight hard against the Germans, and to make sure that they did not win.

Russia and Ukraine

Lex Fridman
(00:42:09)
To fast-forward in time, but not in space, let me ask you about the war in Ukraine. Why did Russia invade Ukraine on February 24th, 2022? What are some of the explanations given? And which do you find the most convincing?
John Mearsheimer
(00:42:33)
Well, clearly, the conventional wisdom is that Putin is principally responsible. Putin is an imperialist, he’s an expansionist.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:43)
That’s the conventional thinking.
John Mearsheimer
(00:42:44)
Yeah, yeah. And the idea is that he is bent on creating a greater Russia, and even more, so he’s interested in dominating Eastern Europe, if not all of Europe, and that Ukraine was the first stop on the train line. And what he wanted to do was to conquer all of Ukraine, incorporate it into a greater Russia, and then he would move on and conquer other countries. This is the conventional wisdom. My view is there is no evidence, let me emphasize, zero evidence, to support that argument.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:26)
Which part? That he would… The imperialist part, the sense that he sought to conquer all of Ukraine, and move on and conquer-
John Mearsheimer
(00:43:36)
There’s no evidence he was interested in conquering all of Ukraine. There was no evidence beforehand that he was interested in conquering any of Ukraine. And there’s no way that an army that had 190,000 troops, at the most, could have conquered all of Ukraine, it’s just impossible.

(00:43:59)
As I like to emphasize, when the Germans went into Poland in 1939, and the Germans, you want to remember, were only intent on conquering the western half of Poland, because the Soviets, who came in later that month, were going to conquer the eastern half of Poland. So the western half of Poland is much smaller than Ukraine, and the Germans went in with 1.5 million troops. If Vladimir Putin were bent on conquering all of Ukraine, he would’ve needed at least 2 million troops. I would argue he’d need 3 million troops, because not only did he need to conquer the country, you then have to occupy it.

(00:44:44)
But the idea that 190,000 troops was sufficient for conquering all of Ukraine, it’s not a serious argument. Furthermore, he was not interested in conquering Ukraine, and that’s why, in March 2022, this is immediately after the war starts, he is negotiating with Zelensky to end the war. There are serious negotiations taking place in Istanbul involving the Turks. And Naftali Bennett, who was the Israeli prime minister at the time, was deeply involved in negotiating with both Putin and Zelensky to end the war.

(00:45:22)
Well, if he was interested, Putin, in conquering all of Ukraine, why in God’s name would he be negotiating with Zelensky to end the war? And of course, what they were negotiating about was NATO expansion into Ukraine, which was the principal cause of the war. People in the West don’t want to hear that argument because if it is true, which it is, then the West is principally responsible for this bloodbath that’s now taking place. And of course, the West doesn’t want to be principally responsible. It wants to blame Vladimir Putin.

(00:45:59)
So we’ve invented this story out of whole cloth that he is an aggressor, that he’s the second coming of Adolf Hitler, and that what he did in Ukraine was try to conquer all of it and he failed. But with a little bit of luck, he probably would’ve conquered all of it, and he’d now be in the Baltic States, and eventually end up dominating all of Eastern Europe. As I said, I think there’s no evidence to support this.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:28)
So maybe there’s a lot of things to ask there. Maybe just to linger on NATO expansion, what is NATO expansion? What is the threat of NATO expansion and why is this such a concern for Russia?
John Mearsheimer
(00:46:42)
NATO was a mortal enemy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It’s a military alliance which has at its heart the United States of America, which is the most powerful state on the planet. It is perfectly understandable that Russia is not going to want that military alliance on its doorstep.

(00:47:08)
Here in the United States we have, as you well know, what’s called the Monroe Doctrine, and that basically says no great powers from Europe or Asia are allowed to come into our neighborhood and form a military alliance with anybody in this neighborhood. When I was young, there was this thing called the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets had the audacity to put nuclear armed missiles in Cuba. We told them in no uncertain terms that that was not acceptable, and that those missiles had to be removed. This is our backyard and we do not tolerate distant great powers coming into our neighborhood.

(00:47:45)
Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And if we don’t like great powers coming into our neighborhood, it’s hardly surprising that the Russians did not want NATO on their doorstep. They made that manifestly clear when the Cold War ended, and they exacted a promise from us that we would not expand NATO. And then when we started expanding NATO, they made it clear, after the first tranche in 1999, that they were profoundly unhappy with that. They made it clear in 2004, after the second tranche, that they were profoundly unhappy with that expansion.

(00:48:29)
And then, in April 2008, when NATO announced that Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO, they made it unequivocally clear, not just Putin, that was not going to happen. They were drawing a red line in the sand. And it is no accident that in August 2008, remember the Bucharest Summit is April 2008? And August 2008, you had a war between Georgia and Russia, and that involved, at its core, NATO expansion.

(00:49:02)
So the Americans and their allies should have understood by at least August 2008 that continuing to push to bring Ukraine into NATO was going to lead to disaster. And I would note that there were all sorts of people in the 1990s like George Kennan, William Perry, who was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Paul Nitsa, and so forth and so on, who argued that NATO expansion would end up producing a disaster, which it has.

(00:49:38)
I would note that at the famous April 2008 Bucharest Summit, where NATO said that Ukraine would be brought into the alliance, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the German and French leaders respectively, opposed that decision. Angela Merkel later said that the reason she opposed it was because she understood that Putin would interpret it as a declaration of war. Just think about that. Merkel is telling you that she opposed NATO expansion into Ukraine, because she understood, correctly, that Putin would see it as a declaration of war.

(00:50:22)
What did the United States and its friends and friends in Europe do? They continued to push and push, because we thought that we could push NATO expansion down their throat after 2008, the same way we did in 1999 and 2004, but we were wrong, and it all blew up in our face in 2014. And when it blew up in our face in 2014, what did we do? Did we back off and say, “Well, maybe the Russians have some legitimate security interest.” No, that’s not the way we operate. We continued to double down.

(00:50:57)
And the end result is that in 2022, you got a war. And as I’ve argued for a long time now, we, the West, are principally responsible for that, not Vladimir Putin.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:11)
So the expansion of NATO is primarily responsible for that.
John Mearsheimer
(00:51:15)
Yeah. To put it in more general terms, what we were trying to do was turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on Russia’s border, and it really wasn’t NATO expansion alone. NATO expansion was the most important element of our strategy. But the strategy had two other dimensions. One was EU expansion, and the third was the Color Revolution. We were trying to force Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the basic goal there was to turn Ukraine into a pro-Western, liberal democracy.

(00:51:52)
And that meant that you’d have Ukraine, if it worked, as a pro-Western liberal democracy that was in the EU, and that was in NATO. This was our goal. And the Russians made it unequivocally clear Ukraine was not going to become a Western bulwark on their border, and most importantly, they made it clear that Ukraine in NATO was unacceptable.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:19)
Can we talk about the mind of Vladimir Putin? You’ve mentioned this idea that he has aspirations for imperialist conquest, that he dreams of empire, is not grounded in reality. He wrote an essay in 2021, about one people. Do you think there is some degree to which he still dreams of the former Soviet Union reuniting?
John Mearsheimer
(00:52:50)
No, he’s made it clear that anybody with a triple digit IQ understands that it’s nuts to think about recreating the Soviet Union. He thinks it’s a tragedy that the Soviet Union fell apart, but as he made clear in that essay, the July 12th, 2021 essay, and as he made clear in speeches before, immediately before he invaded Ukraine, he accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he accepted the status quo in Europe, save for the fact he did not accept the idea that Ukraine would become part of NATO.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:33)
He’s been in power for over two decades. Is there a degree that power can affect a leader’s ability to see the world clearly, as they say, corrupt? Do you think power has corrupted Vladimir Putin, to a degree?
John Mearsheimer
(00:53:52)
It’s very hard for me to answer that question because I don’t know him, and I’ve not studied him carefully in terms of his overall performance over the course of the 23 years that he’s been in power. I’ve studied him as a strategist, and I’ve studied how he deals with the West, and deals with the international system more generally since 2014. And I think he is a first class strategist.

(00:54:31)
This is not to say he doesn’t make mistakes, and he admits he’s made some mistakes, but I think that the West is dealing with a formidable adversary here. And I don’t see any evidence that he’s either lost speed off his fastball, or that power has corrupted his thinking about strategic affairs.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:59)
So he has consistently put, as a primary concern, security? As does the United States, he’s put for Russia’s security, making sure that NATO doesn’t get close to its borders?
John Mearsheimer
(00:55:12)
I think that’s clear. Yeah, I think as I emphasized early on in our conversation, that leaders privilege security or survival over everything else. And by the way, he gave a number of talks and press conferences in addition to writing that famous article that you referred to on July 12th, 2021. So we have a pretty clear record of what he was saying, and I would argue what he was thinking, in the run-up to the war in February 2022.

(00:55:50)
And if you read what he said, it’s quite clear that he privileged security or survival. He was deeply concerned about the security of Russia. And Russia is a quite vulnerable state in a lot of ways, especially if you think back to what it looked like in the 1990s, as you know better than I do. It was in terrible shape. The Chinese talk about the century of national humiliation. One could argue that for the Russians, that was the decade of national humiliation. And it took Putin, I think, quite a bit of time to bring the Russians back from the dead. I think he eventually succeeded, but it took a considerable amount of time, and I think he understood that he was not playing a particularly strong hand. He was playing something of a weak hand, and he had to be very careful, very cautious, and I think he was. And I think that’s very different than the United States. The United States was the Unipol. It was the most powerful state in the history of the world, the most powerful state relative to all its possible competitors. From roughly 1989, certainly after December 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, up until, I would argue, about 2017, we were incredibly powerful. And even after 2017, up to today, the United States remains the most powerful state in the system.

(00:57:18)
And because of our geographical location, we are in a terrific situation to survive in any great power competition. So you have a situation involving the United States that’s different than the situation involving Russia. They’re just much more vulnerable than we are. And therefore, I think Putin tends to be more sensitive about security than any American president in recent times.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:51)
Europe on one side, China on the other side. It’s a complicated situation.
John Mearsheimer
(00:57:56)
Yeah. And we talked before about 1812, when Napoleon invaded and Moscow got burned to the ground. We talked about World War I, where the Russians were actually defeated and surrendered, and then we talked about 1941 to 1945, where, although thankfully the Soviets prevailed, it was a close call. And I mean, the casualties, the destruction that the Soviet Union had inflicted on it by the Germans is just almost hard to believe. So they are sensitive.

(00:58:38)
You can understand full well, or at least you should be able to understand full well, why the idea of bringing Ukraine up to their border really spooked them. I don’t understand why more Americans don’t understand that, it befuddles me. I think it has to do with the fact that Americans are not very good at putting themselves in the shoes of other countries. And you really, if you’re going to be a first class strategist in international politics, you have to be able to do that. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the other side and think about how they think, so you don’t make foolish mistakes.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:16)
And as a starting point, Americans tend to see themselves as the good guys and a set of others as the bad guys. And you have to be able to empathize that Russians think of themselves as the good guys, the Chinese think of themselves as the good guys, and just be able to empathize. If they are the good guys… It’s like that funny skit. Are we the baddies? Consider the United States could be the bad guys.

(00:59:44)
First of all, see the world, if the United States is the bad guys and China is the good guys, what does that world look like? Be able to just exist with that thought, because that is what the Chinese leadership and many Chinese citizens, if not now, maybe in the future, will believe. And you have to kind of do the calculation, the simulation forward from that. And same with Russia, same with other nations.
John Mearsheimer
(01:00:12)
Yeah, I agree with you, a hundred percent. And just, I always think of Michael McFall at Stanford, who was the American ambassador to Russia, I think between 2012 and 2014. And he told me that he told Putin that Putin didn’t have to worry about NATO expansion because the United States was a benign hegemony.

(01:00:36)
And I asked Mike what Putin’s response was to that. And Mike said that Putin didn’t believe it, but Mike believed that he should believe it, and that we could move NATO eastward to include Ukraine, and in the end, we’d get away with it because we are a benign hegemony, but the fact is that’s not what Putin saw. Putin saw us as a malign hegemony. And what Mike thinks, or any American thinks, doesn’t matter. What matters is what Putin thinks.
Lex Fridman
(01:01:15)
But also, the drums of war have been beating for some reason. NATO expansion has been threatened for some reason. So you’ve talked about NATO expansion being dead, so it doesn’t make sense from a geopolitical perspective, on the Europe side, to expand NATO. But nevertheless, that threat has been echoed. So why has NATO expansion been pushed, from your perspective?
John Mearsheimer
(01:01:46)
There are two reasons. One is, first of all, we thought it was a wonderful thing to bring more and more countries into NATO. We thought that it facilitated peace and prosperity. It was ultimately all for the good. And we also thought that countries like Ukraine had a right to join NATO.

(01:02:12)
These are sovereign countries that can decide for themselves, and the Russians have no say in what Ukraine wants to do. And then finally, and this is a point I emphasized before, we were very powerful, and we thought we could shove it down their throat. So it’s a combination of those factors that led us to pursue what I think was ultimately a foolish policy.
Lex Fridman
(01:02:39)
We’ve talked about how wars get started. How do you hope the war in Ukraine ends? What are the ways to end this war? What are the ways to achieve peace there? To end the, I would say, senseless death of young men, as always happens in war?
John Mearsheimer
(01:03:04)
I’m sad to say I don’t have a good answer to that. I don’t think there’s any real prospect of a meaningful peace agreement. I think it’s almost impossible. I think the best you can hope for at this point is, at some point the shooting stops, you have a ceasefire, and then you have a frozen conflict. And that frozen conflict will not be highly stable.

(01:03:36)
And the Ukrainians in the West will do everything they can to weaken Russia’s position, and the Russians will go to great lengths to not only damage that dysfunctional rump state that Ukraine becomes, but the Russians will go to great lengths to sow dissension within the alliance. And that includes in terms of transatlantic relations.

(01:04:03)
So you’ll have this continuing security competition between Russia on one side, and Ukraine and the West on the other. Even when you get a frozen peace, or you get a frozen conflict, and the potential for escalation there will be great. So I think this is a disaster.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:25)
That’s a very realist perspective. Let me ask you sort of the human side of it. Do you think there’s some power to leaders sitting down, having a conversation, man to man, leader to leader, about this? There is just a lot of death happening. It seems that, from an economic perspective, from a historic perspective, from a human perspective, both nations are losing.

(01:04:55)
Is it possible for Vladimir Zelensky and Vladimir Putin to sit down and talk, and to figure out a way where the security concerns are addressed, and both nations can minimize the amount of suffering that’s happening, and create a path towards future flourishing?
John Mearsheimer
(01:05:21)
I think the answer is no.
Lex Fridman
(01:05:23)
Even with the United States involved, three people in the room?
John Mearsheimer
(01:05:27)
Well, I think if the United States is involved, the answer is definitely no. You have to get the Americans out. And then, I think if you have Zelensky and Putin talking, you have a sliver of a chance there. The Americans are a real problem. Look, let’s go back to what happens right after the war starts, okay? As I said before, we’re talking March, early April of 2022. The war starts on February 24th, 2022.

(01:05:59)
And as I said to you, the two sides were negotiating in Istanbul, and they were also negotiating through Naftali Bennett, and the Bennett track and the Turkish track were operating together. I mean, they were not at cross purposes at all. What happened? Bennett tells the story very clearly that they had made significant progress in reaching an agreement. This is Zelensky on one side and Putin on the other. Bennett is talking in person to both Putin and Zelensky, and what happens to produce failure?

(01:06:45)
The answer is, the United States and Britain get involved and tell Zelensky to walk. They tell Zelensky to walk. If they had come in and encouraged Zelensky to try to figure out a way with Putin to shut this one down, and worked with Bennett, and worked with Erdogan, we might’ve been able to shut the war down then, but it was the United States.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:09)
Well, let me sort of push back on that. You’re correct, but the United States paints this picture that everybody’s aligned. Maybe you can correct me, but I believe in the power of individuals, especially individual leaders. Again, whether it’s Biden or Trump or whoever goes into a room and says, in a way that’s convincing, that no more NATO expansion. And actually just on a basic human level, ask the question of why are we doing all this senseless killing?

(01:07:49)
And look at the interest of one, Russia, look at the interest of the other, Ukraine. Their interests are pretty simple. And say, the United States is going to stay out of this. We’re not going to expand NATO, and say all that in a way that’s convincing, which is that NATO expansion is silly at this point, China’s the big threat. We’re not going to do this kind of conflict escalation with Russia. The Cold War’s over, let’s normalize relations.
John Mearsheimer
(01:08:20)
Let me just embellish your argument, okay?
Lex Fridman
(01:08:23)
Thank you. I need it.
John Mearsheimer
(01:08:26)
If we say there’s a sliver of a chance that you can do this, and I do think there is a sliver of a chance. Let me just embellish your point.
Lex Fridman
(01:08:34)
Thank you. I need all the help I can get.
John Mearsheimer
(01:08:37)
Two things have to be done here, in my opinion. One is, Ukraine has to become neutral, and it has to completely sever all security ties with the West, right? It is not like you can say, “We’re not going to expand NATO to include Ukraine, but we’re going to continue to have some loose security arrangement with Ukraine.” None of that. It has to be completely severed. Ukraine has to be on its own, okay?

(01:09:13)
And number two, Ukraine has to accept the fact that the Russians are going to keep the four oblasts that they’ve now annexed, and Crimea. The Russians are not going to give them back. And what you really want to do, if you’re Zelensky or who’s ever running Ukraine in this scenario that we’re positing, is you want to make sure the Russians don’t take another four oblasts, to include Kharkiv and Odessa.

(01:09:45)
If I’m playing Putin’s hand and this war goes on, I’m thinking about taking four more oblasts. I want to take about 43% of Ukraine and annex it to Russia, and I certainly want Odessa, and I certainly want Kharkiv, and I want the two oblasts-
John Mearsheimer
(01:10:03)
And I certainly want Harki and I want the two old boss in between as well.
Lex Fridman
(01:10:05)
Literally, or as leveraged in negotiation or Ukraine neutrality?
John Mearsheimer
(01:10:12)
No, I want them literally, I want to conquer them literally. My point to you is if we can begin to talk about cutting a deal now, you may be able to head that kind of aggression off at the pass. In other words, you may be able to limit Putin and Russia to annexing the four old boss that they’ve now annexed plus Crimea. That’s the best I think you can hope for. The point is you have to get the Ukrainians to accept that. You have to get the Ukrainians to accept becoming a truly neutral state and conceding that the Russians keep a big chunk of territory. It’s about 23% of Ukrainian territory that they’ve annexed and I find it hard to imagine any Ukrainian leader agreeing to that.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:03)
Well, there could be more nuanced things like no military involvement between the United States and Ukraine, but economic involvement, sort of financial support, so normalizing economic relationships with Ukraine, with Russia, all being-
John Mearsheimer
(01:11:21)
I think you could probably get away with that. I think the tricky question there that you would have to answer is what about EU expansion? And I think EU expansion is probably a no-no for the Russians because most people don’t recognize this, but there is a military dimension built into EU expansion. It’s not purely an economic alliance or relationship or institution, whatever word you want to use. There’s a military dimension to that. In the run-up to the war, actually in the run-up to the 2014 crisis, when it first broke out, the Russians made it clear they saw EU expansion as a stalking horse for NATO expansion.

(01:12:10)
So EU expansion is tricky, but I think your point of close economic relations between … or healthy economic relations to use a better term between Ukraine and the West is possible. I think the Russians have a vested interest and if it’s a neutral Ukraine, they have a vested interest in that Ukraine flourishing, but that then brings us back to the territorial issue, right?
Lex Fridman
(01:12:39)
Well, so do you believe it’s possible for individual human relations to counteract the structural forces that you talk about? So meaning the leaders being able to pick up the phone and make agreements that are good for humanity as a whole and for their individual nations in the long term?
John Mearsheimer
(01:12:59)
I think leadership matters here. I mean, one of the real problems here is that there’s no trust on the Russian side, and that has to do with the Minsk agreements. The Minsk agreements, which were designed to shut down the Civil War in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas really mattered to the Russians. And there were four players involved in the Minsk process, four main players, Russia and Ukraine of course, and then Germany and France. And I believe the Russians took the Minsk Accord seriously. I believe Putin took them very seriously. He wanted to shut down that conflict.

(01:13:52)
And Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, he was the French leader and Poroshenko, who was the Ukrainian leader, those were the three key players besides Putin. Again, Hollande from France, Merkel from Germany, and Poroshenko from Ukraine have all explicitly said they were not seriously interested in reaching an agreement in all of the discussions with Putin, they were bamboozling him. They were trying to trick him so that they would buy time to build up Ukraine’s military. Putin is profoundly upset about these admissions by these three leaders. He believes he was fooled into thinking that Minsk could work. He believes that he negotiated in good faith and they did not.

(01:14:49)
And he believes that the level of trust now between Russia and the West is virtually zero as a result of this experience over Minsk. I only bring this up because it cuts against your argument that leaders could pick up the phone and talk to each other and trust each other at least somewhat to work out a meaningful deal. If you’re Putin at this point in time, trusting the West is not an idea that’s going to be very attractive at all. In fact, you’re going to distrust anything they say.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:30)
Yeah, distrust anything the West say, but there is individual humans. The way human nature works is when you’re sitting across from a person, you can trust a human being while still distrusting the West. I mean, I believe in the power of that. I think with the right leaders, you could sit down and talk, like override the general structural distrust of the West and say, “You know what? I like this guy or gal, whatever.” I do hope Zelensky and Putin sit down together and talk, have multiple talks.
John Mearsheimer
(01:16:08)
Just remember they were doing that in March and the Americans came in and the British came in and they scotched a potential deal.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:17)
Well, the other beautiful thing about human nature, there’s forgiveness and there’s trying again.
John Mearsheimer
(01:16:25)
When you’re the leader of a country in an anarchic system, you have to be very careful not to let your trust in a foreign leader take you too far, because if that foreign leader betrays you or betrays your trust and stab you in the back, you could die and again, you want to remember that the principal responsibility of any leader, I don’t care what country it is, is to ensure the survival of their state. And that means that trust is only going to buy you so much, and when you’ve already betrayed the trust of a leader, you really are not going to be able to rely on trust very much to help you moving forward. Now, you disagree with that? I hope you’re right.

(01:17:17)
And if they can shut down the Ukraine-Russia war, it would be wonderful. If I’m proved dead wrong, that would be wonderful news. My prediction that this war is going to go on for a long time and end in an ugly way is a prediction that I don’t like at all. So I hope I’m wrong.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:45)
You wrote that many in the West believe that the best hope for ending the Ukraine wars to remove Vladimir Putin from power, but you argue that this isn’t the case. Can you explain?
John Mearsheimer
(01:17:58)
Well, a lot of people thought when they were having all that trouble, the Russians were having all that trouble with Prigozhin and the Wagner Group that Putin was vulnerable and was likely to be overthrown. And what would happen is a peace-loving leader would replace Putin. I made two points at the time, and I would make those same two points now. Number one, he’s not likely to be overthrown. He was not likely then to be overthrown. And I think as long as his health holds up, I think he will remain in power. My second point is if he doesn’t remain in power and he’s replaced, I would bet a lot of money that his replacement will be more hawkish and more hard line than Putin is.

(01:18:58)
I actually think one could argue that Putin was too trusting of the West before the war started and number two, I think one could argue that he has not waged the war against Ukraine as vigorously as one might have expected. He was slow to mobilize the nation for war, and he has pursued a limited war in all sorts of ways. The Israelis, for example, have killed more civilians in Gaza in one month than the Russians have killed over 18 months in Ukraine. The idea that Vladimir Putin is waging a punishment campaign and killing on purpose, large numbers of civilians, is simply not true.

(01:19:53)
All this just to say that … I would imagine that if Putin leaves office and someone else comes in to replace him, that someone else will be at least if not, more hard line than him in terms of waging the war, and certainly will not trust the West any more than he has.
Lex Fridman
(01:20:15)
By way of advice, let me ask you, if I were to have a conversation interview Vladimir Putin and Zelensky individually, what should I ask them? If you, me and Vladimir Putin are having a chat, what are good ideas to explore? What are good questions to ask? What are good things to say on or off the mic once again, that could potentially even slightly, lessen the amount of suffering in the world caused by this war?
John Mearsheimer
(01:20:51)
I think if you get an interview with Vladimir Putin, there’s just all sorts of questions you could ask him. And my sense is that Putin is a straight shooter. He’s also very knowledgeable about history, and he has simple theories in his head about how the world works. I think he would level with you, and all you would’ve to do is just figure out what all the right questions are. That would not be hard to do. You could ask him why was he so foolish? For example, why was he so foolish as to trust Poroshenko, Hollande and Merkel in the Minsk Accords. Why after his famous talk at Munich in 2007 where he made it clear that he was so unhappy with the West, did he continue to, in a very important way, trust the West?

(01:21:52)
Why didn’t he mobilize the Russian military before late September, 2022, once the negotiations that we were talking about before involving Istanbul and Naftali Bennett. Once they broke down, why didn’t he immediately mobilize more of the Russian population to fight the war? Just all sorts of questions like that. Then, you could ask him questions about where he sees this one headed. What’s the best strategy for Russia if the Ukrainians will not agree to neutrality?People like John Mearsheimer say, “You’ll probably take close to half of Ukraine. Is that true? Does it make sense to take Odessa.”
Lex Fridman
(01:22:47)
And John Mearsheimer also has questions about China, your future relationships with China?
John Mearsheimer
(01:22:53)
Yeah, I mean, one really important question that I would ask him is if the United States had basically not driven you into the arms of the Chinese, if there had been no war over Ukraine and the United States and its European allies had gone to considerable lengths to create some sort of security architecture in Europe that resulted in you, Vladimir Putin having good relations with Ukraine, what would your relations with China be and how would you think about that? So there are just plenty of questions you could ask him.
Lex Fridman
(01:23:33)
Well, hope burns eternal in my heart, I think probably in Putin’s heart and Zelensky’s heart, I hope because hope is, the leap of trust that we’ve talked about, I think is necessary for deescalation and for peace.
John Mearsheimer
(01:23:50)
Well, you realize, I have, from the beginning, argued for different policies that were all designed to prevent this war from ever happening.
Lex Fridman
(01:23:59)
Yes.
John Mearsheimer
(01:24:00)
I don’t know if you know this, but in 1993, I argued that Ukraine should keep its nuclear weapons. I was probably the only person in the West who made that argument. And my argument in 1993, this is in foreign affairs, was that there may come the day when Russia thinks about invading Ukraine. And should that day come, it would be very helpful for preventing war if Ukraine had nuclear weapons.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:27)
So military might is essential for maintaining a balance of power and peace.
John Mearsheimer
(01:24:33)
Well, if you’re interested in deterring an adversary, if I’m worried about you coming after me, the best way to deter you is to have military might. If you’re Russia, and I’m Ukraine, I’m far weaker than you, right?
Lex Fridman
(01:24:46)
Yeah.
John Mearsheimer
(01:24:47)
And having a nuclear deterrent would be very effective at convincing you not to attack me because if you attack me, you’re threatening my survival. And that’s the one circumstance where it is likely that I would use nuclear weapons to defend myself and given the consequences of nuclear use, you would be reluctant in the extreme to attack me. So that’s why I argued in ’93 that if Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons that made war down the road much less likely. And I believe I was correct. And in fact, Bill Clinton, who played the key role in forcing Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons now says … he has said it publicly, you can find it on YouTube that he made a mistake doing that.

(01:25:36)
Furthermore, I argued in 2014 that it made eminently good sense not to continue to push to bring Ukraine into NATO because the end result is that Ukraine would be destroyed and Ukraine is being destroyed. So I was deeply interested at time in making sure that that didn’t happen for the good of the Ukrainians, not to mention, because stability in Europe is a net positive for almost everybody involved, but people did not listen to me then either.
Lex Fridman
(01:26:08)
How did nuclear weapons change the calculus of offensive realism, because of mutually assured destruction? I mean, it’s not just military might. It’s just so destructive that you basically can’t use nuclear weapons unless you want complete destruction.
John Mearsheimer
(01:26:28)
There’s no question that the presence of nuclear weapons makes it much less likely. I’m choosing my words carefully here, much less likely that a great power would aggress against another great power. It doesn’t take that possibility off the table, but it makes it much less likely because of the reasons that you articulated. With regard to nuclear use, it’s an interesting question how you think about nuclear use in a MAD world. I mean, your point that we’re in a MAD world is … that’s mad, MAD as well as mad, small letters, but let’s stick to the capital letters. We’re in a world of mutual assured destruction. There’s no question that in that world, it’s unlikely that nuclear weapons would be used.

(01:27:22)
The way you use nuclear weapons in that world is you use them for manipulation of risk purposes, demonstration effect. You put both sides out on the slippery slope. Now, what exactly am I saying here? Let me talk about NATO doctrine during the Cold War. We lived in a MAD world, United States and Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact in NATO, both had an assured destruction capability. So you had mutual assured destruction. If the Warsaw Pact were to invade Western Europe, and here we’re talking about West Germany and NATO was losing the war, we said that we would use nuclear weapons. How would we use nuclear weapons given that we were in a MAD world? The argument was that we would use a handful of nuclear weapons against the Warsaw Pact, not necessarily against their military forces.

(01:28:25)
It could be in a remote area. We would use a small number of nuclear weapons to signal to the Soviets that we were deadly serious about putting an end to their offensive, and that we were throwing both sides out on the slippery slope to oblivion. In other words, we were manipulating risk and the last clear chance to avoid Armageddon rested with them. And then, we would tell them that if you retaliated with a handful of nuclear weapons and you didn’t cease your offensive against West Germany, we would launch a small, another nuclear attack. We would explode a handful more of nuclear weapons, all for the purposes of showing you our resolve.

(01:29:21)
So this is the manipulation of risk strategy, and a lot of the language I just used in describing it to you is language that Thomas Schelling invented. Now fast-forward to the present, if Russia were losing in Ukraine, that’s the one scenario where I think where Russia would’ve used nuclear weapons. The question is, how would Russia have used nuclear weapons? Again, we’re assuming that the Russians are losing to the Ukrainians. I believe they would’ve pursued a manipulation of risk strategy. They would’ve used four or five, three or four, who knows, nuclear weapons-
Lex Fridman
(01:29:59)
Maybe just one in a rural area that kills very few people.
John Mearsheimer
(01:30:03)
Yes, exactly, and basically, that would spook everybody. The American-
Lex Fridman
(01:30:08)
Just the mushroom cloud.
John Mearsheimer
(01:30:10)
Yeah. It’s because of the threat of escalation.
Lex Fridman
(01:30:14)
Yeah.
John Mearsheimer
(01:30:14)
Again, your point is we’re in a MAD world. I accept that and if you have limited nuclear use, right? We understand hardly anything about nuclear escalation because thank goodness we’ve never had a nuclear war. So once you throw both sides out on the slippery slope, even if you only use one nuclear weapon in your scenario, you don’t know what the escalation dynamics look like. So everybody has a powerful incentive to put an end to the conflict right away. I might add to you that there were people who believed that we would not even initiate a manipulation of risk strategy in Europe if we were losing to the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.

(01:31:04)
Both Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara said after leaving office that they would not have done it. They would’ve not initiated nuclear use, even limited nuclear use. That’s what we’re talking about here. They would rather be red than dead, that was the argument.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:24)
Too risky.
John Mearsheimer
(01:31:25)
Too risky. That’s exactly right, but if they had used one nuclear weapon in your story, or three or four in my story, everybody would’ve said, “Oh my God, we’ve got to shut this one down immediately.” I only tell you this story or lay out this scenario as an answer to your question of how you use nuclear weapons in a MAD world, and this is the answer.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:53)
This is all very terrifying. Perhaps in part, it’s terrifying to me because I can see in the 21st century, China, Russia, Israel, United States using a nuclear weapon in this way, blowing it up somewhere in the middle of nowhere that kills maybe nobody, but I’m terrified of seeing the mushroom cloud and not knowing, given social media, given how fast news travels, what the escalation looks like there. Just in a matter of minutes, how the news travels and how the leaders react. It’s terrifying that this little demonstration of power, the ripple effects of it, in a matter of minutes, seconds, what that leads to because it’s human emotions.

(01:32:51)
You see the landscape of human emotions, the leaders and the populace and the way news are reported, and then the landscape of risk, as you mentioned, shifting the world’s most intense nonlinear dynamical system, and it is just terrifying because the entirety of human civilizations hangs in the balance there. And it’s like this, hundreds of millions of people could be dead.
John Mearsheimer
(01:33:21)
Let’s just talk about this in the context of the Ukrainian War. If the Russians were losing, as I said before, which is not the case anymore, but in 2022, it did look like that, if the Russians are losing and they turn to nuclear weapons, the question is how do they use them? And they would use them in Ukraine, and because Ukraine has no nuclear weapons of its own, Ukraine cannot retaliate. It’s not a mutual assured destruction world. It’s a case where one side has nuclear weapons and the other doesn’t. That means that the Russians are likely to think that they can get away with using nuclear weapons in ways that would not be the case if they were attacking NATO.

(01:34:17)
And therefore, it makes nuclear use more likely. Okay. That’s point one. Point two is let’s assume that the Russians use two or three nuclear weapons in a remote area-
Lex Fridman
(01:34:27)
My palms are sweating, by the way. Just as a commentary. It’s terrifying.
John Mearsheimer
(01:34:32)
Yeah. The question then is what does the West do? Now, Macron has said and Biden has also, I think, implicitly made this clear, “We would not retaliate with nuclear weapons, if the Russians were to attack with a handful of nuclear weapons in Western Ukraine.” Then, the question is what would we do? And if you listen to David Petraeus, what David Petraeus says, is that we should attack the Russian naval assets in the Black Sea and attack Russian forces in Ukraine. Well, once you do that, you have a great power of war. You have NATO versus Russia, which is another way of saying you have the United States versus Russia. We’re now in a great power of war.

(01:35:23)
They have nuclear weapons, we have nuclear weapons. They’ve used nuclear weapons. What is the happy ending here? And just to take it a step further and go back to our earlier discussion about moving NATO up to Russia’s borders, the point I made, which you’ll surely agree with, is that the Russians are very fearful when they see NATO coming up to their border. Well, here’s a case where not only is NATO come up to their border, but they’re in a war with NATO right on their border. What do the escalation dynamics look like there? You know what the answer is? Who knows? That should scare the living bejesus out of you, right?
Lex Fridman
(01:36:06)
And some of it could be, like you mentioned, unintended. There could be unintended consequences. That could be a Russian missile misses in hits Poland. These kinds of things that just escalate misunderstandings, miscommunications, even … I mean, nuclear weapon could be … boy, it could have been planned to go location X, and it went to a location Y that ended up actually killing a very large number of people. I mean, the escalation that happens there just happens in a matter of minutes. And the only way to stop that is communication between leaders. And that to me is a big argument for ongoing communication.
John Mearsheimer
(01:36:52)
There’s a story that during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy put out the word, no aircraft under any circumstances or to penetrate Soviet airspace. He then found out a few days later that some guy hadn’t gotten the message and had penetrated in an aircraft deep into Soviet airspace.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:19)
Yeah.
John Mearsheimer
(01:37:19)
And this supports your basic point that bad things happen.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:25)
Yeah.
John Mearsheimer
(01:37:26)
And again, the overarching point here is we’ve never done this before, thankfully. Therefore, we don’t have a lot of experience as to how it plays itself out. It’s really a theoretical enterprise because there’s no empirical basis for talking about escalation in a nuclear crisis. And that, of course, is a wonderful thing.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:50)
Well, and in general, the human species as a whole as a one-off, is a theoretical enterprise. The survival of the human species. We’ve seen empires rise and fall, but we haven’t seen the human species rise and fall. So far it’s been rising, but it’s not obvious that it doesn’t end. In fact, I think about aliens a lot, and the fact that we don’t see aliens makes me suspect it’s not so easy to survive in this complicated world of ours. Switching gears a little bit and going to a different part of the world, also engulfed in war. Let me ask you about the situation in Israel. Why did Hamas attack Israel on October 7th, 2023? As you understand the situation, what was the reason that attack happened?

Israel and Palestine

John Mearsheimer
(01:38:48)
Well, I think the main reason was that you had this suffocating occupation. I think as long as the occupation persists, the Palestinians are going to resist. As you well know, this is not the first time there has been a Palestinian uprising. There was the first Intifada, there was the second Intifada, now there’s October 7th, and there are uprisings besides those three, so this is not terribly surprising. A lot of people hypothesized that this attack was due to the fact that the Israelis, the Saudis and the Americans were working together to foster another Abraham Accord and that the Palestinians would in effect be sold down the river.

(01:39:45)
I think given the fact that this was in the planning stages for probably about two years, and the Abraham Accords with regard to Saudi Arabia are relatively new phenomenon, I don’t think that’s the main driving force here. I think the main driving force is that the Palestinians feel oppressed as they should, and that this was a resistance move. They were resisting the Israeli occupation.
Lex Fridman
(01:40:18)
So that resistance, the attack involved killing a large number of Israeli civilians. There’s many questions asked there, but one is, do you think Hamas fully understood what the retaliation will involve from Israel and to Gaza?
John Mearsheimer
(01:40:39)
They had to understand. I mean, you had Operation Cast Lead in 2008, 2009. It started, I think right after Christmas 2008, and it ended right before President Obama took office in January 2009. And the Israelis periodically do what they call mowing the lawn where they go into Gaza and they pound the Palestinians to remind them that they’re not supposed to rise up and cause any problem. So there’s no question in my mind that the Hamas forces understood full well that the Israelis would retaliate and they would retaliate in force as they have done.
Lex Fridman
(01:41:35)
Yeah, even the metaphor of mowing the lawn is disturbing to me in many ways. I actually saw Norman Finkelstein, I think, say that, well, then if you use that metaphor, then you could say that Hamas was also mowing the lawn. It’s such a horrific image because the result on either side is just the death of civilians. I mean, let me ask you about the death of civilians. So during the attack, 1400 Israelis were killed. Over 240 were taken hostage. Then, in response, as we sit today, Israel’s military response has killed over 10,000 people in Gaza. And given the nature of the demographics, it’s a very heavily young population.

(01:42:27)
Over 40% of them are under the age of 18, of those killed. That’s of course, according to Ministry of Health of Palestinian Authority. So what do you think is the long-term effect on the prospect of peace when so many civilians die?
John Mearsheimer
(01:42:46)
I mean, I think it’s disastrous. I mean, the only way you’re going to get peace here is if you have a two-state solution where the Palestinians have a sovereign state of their own, and there is a sovereign Jewish state. And these two states live side by side American presidents since Jimmy Carter have understood this full well. And this is why we have pushed very hard for two-state solution. Indeed, many American Jews and many Israelis have pushed for a two-state solution because they think that that is the only way you’re going to get peace between the two sides. What’s happened here is that in recent years, the Israelis have lost all interest in a two-state solution.

(01:43:43)
And it’s in large part because the political center of gravity in Israel has steadily moved to the right. When I was a young boy, the political center of gravity in Israel was much further to the left than it is today. It is in a position now, the political center of gravity where there’s hardly any support for two state solution and Netanyahu and the rest of the people in his government were in favor or are in favor of a greater Israel. There’s just no question about that. Well, on top of that, you now have had a war where, as you described, huge numbers of civilians have been killed, and you already had bad blood between the Palestinians and the Israelis before this conflict.

(01:44:41)
And you could imagine how people on each side now feel about people on the other side. So even if you didn’t have this opposition inside Israel to a two-state solution, how could you possibly get the Israelis now to agree to a two-state solution? I think for the foreseeable future, the animosity …
John Mearsheimer
(01:45:03)
Solution. I think for the foreseeable future, the animosity inside Israel towards the Palestinians is so great that it is impossible to move the Israelis in that direction. And the Israelis here are the key players more so than the Palestinians because it’s the Israelis who control Greater Israel. It’s the Israelis who you have to convince. Now, I want to be clear here. You also ultimately have to get around the fact that Hamas is not committed to a two-state solution. But I think that problem could be dealt with. It’s important to understand that Arafat and the PLO was once adamantly opposed to a two-state solution. But Arafat came around to understand that that was really the only hope for settling this. And he became a proponent of a two-state solution.

(01:45:53)
And that’s true of Mahmoud Abbas who runs the PA in the West Bank. It’s not true of Hamas at this point in time. They want a one-state solution, they want a Palestinian state. And of course, the Israelis want a one-state solution too, which is a Jewish state that controls all of Greater Israel. So the question is, can you get some sort of agreement? And I think to get to the nub of your question, given what’s just happened, it’s almost impossible to imagine that happening anytime soon.
Lex Fridman
(01:46:27)
The cynical perspective here is that those in power benefit from conflict while the people on both sides suffer. Is there a degree of truth to that? Or for the people in power to maintain power conflict needs to continue?
John Mearsheimer
(01:46:44)
No, I don’t believe that. I mean, just to take the Netanyahu government or any Israeli government that maintains the occupation, what you want is you want a Palestinian population that submits to Israeli domination of Greater Israel. You don’t want resistance, you don’t want an intifada. You don’t want what happened on October 7th. In fact, I think one of the principal reasons that the Israelis are pounding Gaza and killing huge numbers of civilians. Punishing the civilian population in ways that clearly violate the laws of war, is because they want the Palestinians to understand that they are not allowed to rise up and resist the occupation. That’s their goal.

(01:47:33)
So, I think the Israelis would prefer that the Palestinians roll over and accept submission. In terms of the people who live in Gaza to include the elites, and the people who live in the West Bank to include the elites. They would much prefer to move to some sort of situation where the Palestinians have a state of their own. I think in the case of the PA, under Abbas, they would accept a two-state solution. I think what, at this point in time, Hamas wants is a one-state solution, but they want peace. All of them want peace. The two different sets of leadership in Palestine and the Israelis.
Lex Fridman
(01:48:16)
So you think Hamas wants peace?
John Mearsheimer
(01:48:19)
Sure. But on its own terms, that’s the point.
Lex Fridman
(01:48:21)
What does peace look like for Hamas?
John Mearsheimer
(01:48:24)
At this point in time, I think peace basically means a Greater Israel controlled by Palestine or Palestinians.
Lex Fridman
(01:48:31)
Okay. So essentially, it’s the whole land is called Palestine and there’s no Israel?
John Mearsheimer
(01:48:38)
I think, at this point in time, that’s their principal goal. I do believe, and there have been hints over time, Jimmy Carter has said this, that Hamas can be convinced to a two-state solution. Assuming that the Palestinians get a viable state of their own, that Hamas would buy into that. Can we say that with a high degree of certainty? No, but I think the Israelis should have pursued that possibility. They should have worked with Abbas, they should have worked with Hamas to do everything they can to facilitate a two-state solution. Because I think, ultimately, that’s in Israel’s interest. Now, the Israeli government, and most Israelis at this point in time, I believe, don’t agree with that.
Lex Fridman
(01:49:21)
What do you think of Israel starting the ground invasion of Gaza recently on October 27th?
John Mearsheimer
(01:49:31)
The question is, should they continue until they have finally defeated Hamas? There are all sorts of reports in the media, including in the Israeli media, that they’re not going to be allowed by the United States to continue this offensive for much more than a few weeks. The Israelis have been saying it’s going to take, in the best of all possible worlds, a number of months, if not a year to finish off Hamas. Well, it doesn’t look like they’re going to have enough time to do that. I doubt whether they can finish off Hamas, even if they’re given the time. I think they’re going to run into fierce resistance. And when they run into fierce resistance and large numbers of Israelis going to start to die, they’ll lose their appetite for this. And they, the Israelis, surely know at this point in time that even if they finish off Hamas, even if I’m wrong and they’re able to finish off Hamas, another group is going to rise up to resist the occupation.

(01:50:48)
The idea that you can use with Ze’ev Jabotinsky called The Iron Wall, to beat the Palestinians into submission is delusional. It’s just not going to happen. The Palestinians want a state of their own. They don’t want to live under occupation. And there’s no military solution for Israel here. There has to be a political solution. And the only viable political solution is a two-state solution. I mean, you can’t go to democracy. You can’t go to a situation where you give the Palestinians equal rights inside of Greater Israel in large part because there are now as many Palestinians as there are Israeli Jews. And over time, the balance, the demographic balance shifts against the Israeli Jews and in favor of the Palestinians. In which case, you’ll end up with a Palestinian state in Greater Israel. So democracy for all doesn’t work. The Israelis, I believe, are quite interested in ethnic cleansing.

(01:51:56)
I think they saw this recent set of events as an opportunity to cleanse Gaza, but that’s not going to happen. The Jordanians and the Egyptians have made it clear that that’s not happening. The United States has now made it clear that that’s not happening. And the Palestinians will not leave. They’ll die in place. So ethnic cleansing doesn’t work. So you’re really left with two alternatives, the two-state solution or a Greater Israel that is effectively an apartheid state. I mean, that’s what the occupation has led to. And all sorts of people have been predicting this for a long, long time. And you’ve now reached the point. Here in the United States, if you say that Israel’s an apartheid state, that’s going to get you into all sorts of trouble. But the fact is that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem, which is the leading Israeli human rights group. All three of those institutions or organizations have issued detailed reports making the case that Israel is an apartheid state.

(01:53:07)
Furthermore, if you read the Israeli media, all sorts of Israelis, including Israeli leaders, refer to Israel as an apartheid state. It’s not that unusual to hear that term used in Israel. This is disastrous for Israel in my opinion. And Steve Walt and I said this, by the way, when we wrote The Israel Lobby, that Israel is an apartheid state, which is equivalent to Israel as an occupier is not good for Israel. That brings us back to the two-state solution. But as you and I were talking about a few minutes ago, it’s hard to see how you get a two-state solution. And the end result of this conversation is utter despair.
Lex Fridman
(01:53:53)
Because the path to a two-state solution is blocked by the amount of hate that’s created by civilian deaths?
John Mearsheimer
(01:54:01)
Well, that plus the fact that the Israeli government is filled with people who have no interest in a two-state solution. They’re ideologically deeply committed to a Greater Israel. They want all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea to be part of a Jewish state. They’re just ideologically committed to that. And of course, as we were talking about before with regard to Hamas, Hamas wants everything between the river and the sea to be a Palestinian state. And when you have two sides with those kinds of views, you’re in deep trouble because there’s a little room for compromise. So what you have to do to get this to work is you have to convince the Israelis that it’s in their interest to have a two-state solution. And you’ve already taken care of the PA on this front, the Palestinian Authority, but you’ve got to convince Hamas that it’s maximalist goals are not going to work. And it’s in its interest to follow in the footsteps of Arafat and accept a two-state solution.

(01:55:17)
But even if you do that at this point, let’s say, that there’s a lot of willingness intellectually on both sides to do that. The problem is that the hatred that has been fueled by this ongoing conflict is so great that it’s just hard to imagine how you can make a two-state solution work at this juncture. That’s why I’ve sort of taken to saying, and I hope I’m wrong here, that on the two-state solution, that boat has sailed. It’s no longer possible.
Lex Fridman
(01:55:53)
Well, again, I believe in leadership and there’s other parties at play here, other nations, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, other players in the Middle East that could help through a normalization of relationships and these kinds of things. There’s always hope, like you said, slither of hope.
John Mearsheimer
(01:56:10)
Slither of hope.
Lex Fridman
(01:56:12)
I think human civilization progresses forward by taking advantage of all the slithers it can get. Let me ask you about, you mentioned The Israel Lobby. You wrote a book, probably your most controversial book on the topic.
John Mearsheimer
(01:56:26)
Not probably. Clearly, the most controversial book I ever wrote.
Lex Fridman
(01:56:30)
So you’ve criticized the Israel lobby in the United States for influencing US policy in the Middle East. Can you explain what the Israel lobby is, their influence, and your criticism over the past, let’s say a couple of decades?
John Mearsheimer
(01:56:48)
Well, the argument that Steve Walt and I made, actually, we wrote an article first, which appeared in the London Review of Books, and then we wrote the book itself. Our argument is that the lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that push American policy in a pro-Israel direction. And basically, the lobby is interested in getting the United States, and here we’re talking mainly about the American government, to support Israel no matter what Israel does. And our argument is, that if you look at the relationship between the United States and Israel, it’s unprecedented in modern history. This is the closest relationship that you can find between any two countries in recorded history. It’s truly amazing the extent to which Israel and the United States are joined at the hip. And we support Israel no matter what almost all the time. And our argument is that, that is largely due to the influence of the lobby. The lobby is an extremely powerful interest group.

(01:58:15)
Now, it’s very important to understand that the American political system is set up in ways that allow interest groups of all sorts to wield great influence. So in the United States, you have an interest group or a lobby like the National Rifle Association that makes it, well, not impossible to get gun control. And so with the Israel lobby, you have this group of individuals and organizations that wield enormous influence on US policy toward the Middle East. And this is not surprising given the nature of the American political system. So our argument is that the lobby is not doing anything that’s illegal, or illicit, or immoral, or unethical. It’s just a good old-fashioned American interest group. And it just happens to be extremely powerful. And our argument is that this is not good for the United States because no two countries have the same interests all the time. And when our interests conflict with Israel’s interest, we should be able to do what we think is in our national interest, in America’s national interest.

(01:59:42)
But the lobby tends to conflate America’s national interests with Israel’s national interests and wants the United States to support Israel no matter what. We also argue, and I cannot emphasize this enough, given what’s going on in the world today, that the lobby’s effects, the lobby has not been pushing policies that are in Israel’s interest. So our argument is that the lobby pushes policies that are not in America’s interest or not in Israel’s interest. Now, you’re saying to yourself, what exactly does he mean by that? What every president since Jimmy Carter has tried to do, as I said before, is to foster a two-state solution to push Israel, which is the dominant player in Greater Israel, push Israel to accept the two-state solution. And we have run into huge resistance from the lobby whenever we try to, let’s be blunt about it, coerce Israel.

(02:00:51)
In a perfect world where there was no lobby and an American president was free to put pressure on Israel, to coerce Israel, I believe, we would’ve gone a long way towards getting two-state solution. And I believe, this would’ve been in Israel’s interest. But we couldn’t get a two-state solution because it was almost impossible to put meaningful pressure on Israel because of the lobby. So this was not in Israel’s interest and it was not in America’s interest. And that was the argument that we made. And we, of course, got huge pushback for making that argument.
Lex Fridman
(02:01:28)
What’s the underlying motivation of the lobby? Is it religious in nature? Is it similar to the way war hawks are sort of militaristic in nature? Is it nationalistic in nature? If you were describe this loose coalition of people, what would you say is their motivation?
John Mearsheimer
(02:01:47)
Well, first of all, I think you have to distinguish between Jews and Christians. You want to remember that there are a huge number of Christian Zionists who are deeply committed to Israel no matter what, right? And then, there are a large number of Jews. The Jews are obviously the most important of those two groups in the Israel lobby. But one of the arguments that we made in the book is that you should not call it the Jewish lobby because it’s not populated just by Jews and Christian Zionists are an important part of that lobby. But furthermore, there are a good number of Jews who are opposed to the lobby and the policies that the lobby pervades. And there are a number of Jews who are prominent anti-Zionist, and they’re obviously not in the lobby. Or if you take a group like Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace is not in the lobby. So it’s w