August 4, 2017

The Liberation Science Provides: Lawrence Krauss

By In Interviews

[The above photograph is of gaseous pillars captured by the Hubble Space telescope about 7,000 light years from earth. Astronomers from Arizona State University were responsible for the photograph, which is called “Pillars of Creation.” The title alludes to a speech by 19th-century pastor Charles Spurgeon, who said, “he who created all things and bears up the pillars of creation.” Astonishingly, the left most pillar itself is four light years tall. Inside the gaseous nebulas, new stars form, in a similar fashion to how the sun was likely formed.]

“I hope that every [person] at one point in their life has the opportunity to have something that is at the heart of their being, something so central to their being that if they lose it they won’t feel that they’re human anymore, to be proved wrong because that’s the liberation that science provides. The realization that to assume the truth, to assume the answer before you ask the question leads you nowhere.”

– Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss is one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists who is currently the Director of The Origin Project at Arizona State University, which conducts research into the origins of the universe and life to humanity and consciousness. Among his scientific contributions, he was one of the first physicists to suggest the possibility of dark energy. He is also the only physicist to receive awards from all three United States physics societies: the American Physical Society (2001), the Oersted Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers (2004), and the Public Service Award from the National Science Board in 2012.

Professor Krauss is also the author of a number of popular books and an advocate for scientific literacy and education in the broader culture.

He received his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982.

Selected books by Lawrence Krauss:

[Note: This interview was conducted on August 3, 2017.]

OR: First of all, I really appreciate the conversation. You’re one of the world’s leading physicists, so it’s a real privilige.

LK: No worries, Ben. Thanks for the invitation.

OR: I wanted to start by reading a quote from your most recent book The Greatest Story Ever Told where you said:

“Ultimately I believe we are driven to do science because of a primal urge we have to better understand our origins, our mortality, and ultimately ourselves.”

It struck me when I read that, that you’re both Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State, but I believe you’re also Chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Much of what you do is concerned with the beginning or potential end of the universe. Even when you were young, did you find yourself spending a lot of energy on the really big questions that are fundamental to our understanding of the universe?

LK: Yes. But, I don’t think that makes me unusual. Most people, especially young people, but even as they grow up ask themselves these existential questions about the universe. They find it fascinating to consider where we come from and what the future brings. These are the kinds of questions that intrigue everyone. I got fascinated by them in a more scientific way perhaps early on by reading books about scientists like Galileo and other people who worked to understand the universe, sometimes against great odds. I not only found them fascinating but influential in my thinking and in figuring out what I might want to do and who I might want to emulate. So, my general fascination became a scientific fascination.

But, I think everyone is hardwired to want to come into this world and look up at the sky and ask themselves those questions.

OR: I feel like I understand parts of A Universe from Nothing but parts are also over my head. I guess simplistically, how do we think about “nothing”? Should we imagine a vaccum, where there’s no energy, no mass? 

LK: That’s one version of “nothing” and the simplest version: empty space without anything in it, which of course I tend to think of as the nothing of the Bible. It’s actually more complicated. I also discussed a “nothing” which involves no universe, no space, and no time and how the universe can arise from that as well. In my book, I tried to take people through different versions of “nothing” to show how they’re all distinguishable from “something” in the sense that “something” can come from them by natural processes. But, the simplest version of “nothing” is indeed empty space with nothing in it.

Mapping the fourteen billion year history of the universe, Source: NASA

OR: It seems like one of the problems for many people with the book was simply trying to understand the use of the word “nothing” and they got so hung up on that one word it kept them from understanding the real message that you were trying to get across, which is a plausible origin of the universe.

LK: Yeah, I think people pick on it because they wanted to find something they didn’t like because I was trying to talk about a plausible origin of the universe, not one in which we know for certain all of the details. I liken it in some sense to Charles Darwin’s plausible understanding of evolution and natural selection. He demonstrated by the evidence that evolution was plausible and a well-founded explanation for how the diversity of life on earth arose. He didn’t know about genes or about the details of DNA that we know now.

Similarly, we can take the laws that we understand and show that it is plausible, without violating any of the laws of physics, to arrive at this universe. We don’t have a theory of quantum gravity, so we can’t describe it, yet we can show that you can get exactly “something” from “nothing” and that it’s possible to understand the beginnings of the universe.

I think people pick up on that “nothing” argument because that word specifically drives them crazy. Many people found their religious beliefs on the notion that “something” cannot possibly come from “nothing.” Why there is “something” and not “nothing” attacks those beliefs so much that they can’t be right and therefore we’ve got to parse those words more carefully and essentially redefine “nothing” as a state from which only God can create “something.”

OR: If you believe there is an eternal entity that you call “God” or if you believe in a complex science that is more plausible, where the laws of quantum mechanics make possible particles coming in and out of existence, it seem to me that you’re going to be stuck with the problem that it defies easy human comprehension.

LK: It’s not easily comprehensible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not comprehensible. That’s the point. What some people say is, “I can’t understand it, therefore, I give up and it must be God. I can’t understand it, therefore we’ll never understand it.” It’s a lazy way of thinking, in my opinion. I call it “God,” but what does it mean? It means that which I can’t understand. The other way of thinking is to say that it’s hard and maybe we won’t understand it, but let’s try. It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. One is just giving up and the other is actually making an attempt to understand it.

OR: Yeah, I think what I meant by that was not that it’s incomprehensible, but that you’re not going to figure this out through common sense or by relying on everyday experiences. It’s obvious, regardless of your views, something that happened out of ordinary experience.

LK: Exactly. At the same time, I repeat that I do think using the term “God” is in many ways just the lazy way of going about the problem. It’s giving up.

OR: I absolutely agree. 

The fact that it appears as if the total energy of the universe is zero if I’m understanding correctly because gravitational energy is actually negative and cancels other forms of energy such as electricity, plays a very big role in the plausibility of your argument that a universe could arise from “nothing.” This might be a little vague, but why is that so important? Why does zero total energy imply more stability in the universe?

LK: It’s a subtle issue that I tried to cover in the book. Indeed, the total gravitational energy of the universe is zero, which is striking. The point is that one of the arguments against creating “something” from “nothing” is that “something” has energy whereas “nothing” does not. How can you get all this stuff from no stuff? Doesn’t that clearly violate the laws of physics?

What is remarkable is that you can imagine a universe with a hundred billion galaxies each containing a hundred billion stars, and still the total energy of that universe could be zero. That means you could create it from “nothing” without violating a law as fundamental as the conservation of energy.

What’s important to realize is that gravity has positive energy and negative energy, and so one of these standard arguments about why you can’t create “something” from “nothing” goes out the window when you understand things a little more carefully.

OR: I think my favorite book that you’ve written is Hiding in the Mirror. One of the things you discussed was Plato’s Republic, this idea of only seeing shadows of reality. I probably think of it as more like an iceberg. When we were first beginning to understand the universe, a lot of the things we were understanding were what was visible and now we’re so far beneath the surface that it’s difficult for people to connect with and identify with what we’re continuing to understand. 

I was wondering if, in your opinion, that’s the biggest reason why there’s such a decline in interest in science because the problems that are being tackled can seem so remote?

LK: That’s a good question. That’s one of the reasons I not only wrote that book, but also The Greatest Story Ever Told, which is to take you step by step from the world you can understand to a world that seems very strange. Because you’re right, especially in physics. Not so much in biology, but to some extent there as well. Physics has moved into an esoteric realm that does seem far from everyday life and also impossibly complicated. That is what makes so many people just throw up their hands. First of all, it doesn’t seem to affect my life in any way. It’s not going to make a faster car or better toaster and therefore I don’t need to understand it. Secondly, it seems so complicated that I couldn’t understand it if I wanted to.

The fact that physics has been so successful is the same reason that many people feel so decoupled from it. It’s important to show step by step that there is a connection between even these esoteric ideas and what we feel and see and experience.

OR: Do you think that’s the solution to the problem, to try and communicate more?

LK: I’ve often said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So, I’m an educator and a communicator and I certainly believe that education and communication helps a lot. I don’t know if it’s the only solution, but it can’t hurt. I can’t see any other way to try and get people excited, then to communicate to them all of those connections that are hidden beneath the surface.

OR: I think as a teenager among my first exposures to real science was the program The Mechanical Universe on PBS from Cal Tech. I think it featured Dr. David Goodstein. Obviously, you can still find those, they’re quite old now. I’m not sure there are good means within mass media of reaching people when they’re young to be fascinated the same way people were when they watched people land on the moon and there were a plethora of shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone that sparked curiosity. I’m not sure if those exist today.

LK: It’s hard to say because we don’t have a historical perspective on today and so maybe in the future people will be saying, “What happened to all those shows from 2017?” There were wonderful programs, but I do think that there still are. I appear on TV when I can. Every year I film six or seven episodes of something called How the Universe Works. It’s a very important medium in which to reach kids.

The interesting thing is that people are fascinated by science, but the producers and editors of television and magazines don’t seem to recognize that and they often create a barrier. They don’t think people watch science programs, but of course, they will, especially if they’re made in an interesting way.

Professor Krauss on the Australian television show, Q & A.

What does bother me about some of the production of science education is that it relies so much on sophisticated computer graphics so that some of the basic, simple messages don’t get across. You can do it very powerfully without all the “wowy-zowy,” but producers like to spend all that money on the graphics.

One of the important programs for me was called The Ascent of Man and it was made by Jacob Bronowski. It was just him talking into the camera. People are fascinated. When you put it on, people will watch.

There are radio programs also like “Science Friday,” which I used to be Chairman of the Board of the Science Friday Foundation. I think two or three million people listen to that every week.

I write books, but I do think TV and movies are a way of reaching a broader audience and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been more involved in making movies recently.

OR: I live in Ohio, actually not far from Case-Western where you used to teach. I think it was in 2004 that you took on the Ohio School Board about intelligent design. I thought it was interesting. It’s understandable that you’re someone who cares about science a great deal, but it was slightly outside of physics. I was wondering if you could talk about how you got drawn into that debate and was that the first time you recognized that it was important to take an active role in that debate because it’s not certain that these issues will be resolved in favor of science?

LK: That’s an interesting question because indeed I am a physicist and some might view it as an issue of biology. I first got involved in the issue because I found I was disappointed that biologists weren’t speaking out more effectively. I also have the luxury of having a public voice and I think it should be used responsibly. Most importantly, I view that whole issue and still do, as an attack not on biology, but an attack on science in general. As a scientist, I thought it was perfectly appropriate to respond and necessary to respond to an attack on science.

These people were basically saying, “Give up the scientific method and invent something that defies all the ways in which science works.” Don’t test it, just assume it and when you do make predictions that are wrong, don’t give them up.

Only after I spoke out did I discover how insidious the problem was and I got wrapped up in it and realized what a concerted and planned effort there was to keep science from public schools. It got a lot of national attention and started the ball rolling. And we won in many cases, although the attacks don’t end, they continue to morph and change. You could say it’s an example of evolution, although more of an adaptation, because when you win one way they just change their arguments and they’re trying to do that now in a couple of states.

I still view it as a privilege to have a public voice and therefore I should use it. I think the most successful thing, or the thing I’m proudest of in Ohio, although we did beat back that particular effort which involved going to the School Board and speaking in front of thousands of hostile people, was creating an organization called Help Ohio Public Education. We recruited candidates for local School Boards to defend science and in every case where we recruited a candidate, they defeated the fundamentalist creationist candidates even though we were outspent something like ten-to-one.

OR: That’s wonderful. One of the failings of the Democratic Party is that it tends to focus more on the national issues, while people on the Republican side of the aisle are very focused on local elections like School Boards. For a long time, they put a lot more effort into issues like that. So, it’s gratifying to see people fight back against it.

LK: I think you’re right. Some people say that all politics is local, but I think it’s ridiculous to have local School Boards determine the curriculum. It should require experts nationally and I really don’t think local parents should determine the curriculum for their children. The whole point of education, in some sense, is to get children out of the house.

OR: That’s why so many parents who believe that way want to home school their kids.

LK: I realize that. In any case, people don’t realize that local School Board elections can be won with a few hundred votes. You’re right that some of these groups focus and target those things because if they control the local and state School Boards, then they control a tremendous amount. I think people are recognizing that to some extent. I don’t really know the strategy of Democrats versus Republicans in that regard, but I do know that many people are aware of the issues of School Boards. Ohio is one of them. Texas is much more significant in certain ways because of its influence on the textbooks that are used.
OR: I didn’t mean for this to be a political discussion, but I know that you’ve been critical of Trump’s budget when it comes to science and research. As you think about where we are as a country and where we were in 2004 when you started fighting these battles, do you feel we’re making progress or are we constantly taking one step forward and then one step backward?
LK: It’s a continual struggle. There’s some progress, but there are forces for one reason or another – because of fear, because of ideology, because of religion – try to censor or distort the results of science. I do think that right now federally we’re in a situation that’s as bad as it has ever been.  I thought that during the Bush Administration, but this is much more blatant. The movement’s core used to be at a more insidious level, but this is explicit lies and distortions and in some sense people are proud of it. This administration has an open war on science and I’ve written about it in a variety of ways and I find it distressing.
OR: You’ve been very willing to debate others on these topics. I’ve watched some of them. There was one, in particular, a while back against Hamza Tzortzis. It felt like an absurdist comedy or drama where, in that particular debate, there was a huge hang-up about deductive and inductive reasoning and a lot of things that didn’t seem fundamental to the issue. That one debate doesn’t really matter all that much, but I guess my question is, as you’ve gone around and done these debates and traveled with Richard Dawkins, do you feel like you’ve seen tangible proof of making a difference?
LK: I think so. The point of those debates is never to convince the opponent. You’re dealing with ideologues or demagogues or con-artists. I don’t think you’re ever going to win a debate and change their minds. The people that you’re trying to reach are the people in the middle that have never thought about the issues and come in good faith and are willing to listen. 
I try to do debates very rarely because I find them to be not particularly useful. They’re more rhetorical tricks than anything having informational utility. When I finished that debate with Hamza Tzortzis I felt awful. I was just miserable. But, I’ve found so many people after the fact that watched that and wrote me and say that it opened their eyes. The same is true for the film The Unbelievers. It opens their eyes to the fact that some of these people are lying or distorting reality and secondly, that it’s OK to question. You’re not a bad person for doing it. I’ve been absolutely amazed at the broad effect. I’ve had people write me from around the world. I was just in Russia and people came up to me and said that these things caused them to open their minds.

Krauss debating Hamza Tzortzis.

 

Richard Dawkins and I were asked once in Sydney, Australia how we get people to follow us. We said we didn’t want people to follow us, we want people to think and that’s all. 
People argue that we’re just alienating people from science by attacking religion. The point is that people need to see that it’s OK to think for themselves and it really does have an impact. I get letters every single day.
OR: That’s terrific. I grew up religiously and I tend to think of it almost in the same way the advertising industry would, which is that somebody seeing a single advertisement is unlikely to act. Exposure to messages multiple times dramatically increase their effectiveness. I think that’s how it works for a lot of people. It takes a number of years for the process to play out.
LK: Of course it does, but here’s the point. The really insidious aspects of religion are that for so many people in small towns throughout the world, religion has a monopoly on morality and people are told that if they question, they’re bad people and so they’re afraid to question or they think something is wrong with themselves. None of that is true. Asking questions is a good thing. Moreover, you’re not alone.
Sometimes I’m even afraid to open peoples minds up because there’s so much pressure from the community.
OR: In some cases, the people you know will never speak to you again.
LK: That’s right. One person once told me why there are fewer women who are outspoken is because they have kids that go to school and they know if they’re seen as having that kind of household, people will shun them. I remember that my daughter went to a very progressive private school and there were parents who would not allow their children to go to school on the days when I spoke there.
OR: That’s amazing.
LK: “Atheist” has this connotation throughout the world of evil. Studies have shown that atheists are the least trusted group next to rapists. One of my favorite stories is from a friend of mine, Julia Sweeney, a former Saturday Night Live cast member. When she explained to her mother that she was an atheist, her mother said, “Oh my God! I can see not believing in God, but an atheist?” 

A young Lawrence Krauss speaking with Richard Feynman.

(Laughter).
OR: I think you’ve said that two of the people that had the biggest impact on you were Noam Chomsky and Richard Feynman. Both are men I admire too. Christopher Hitchens was also someone I admired and with whom you were friends. There was a real chasm that opened up between Noam Chomsky and others like Christopher Hitchens regarding how we look at other cultures and we speak and judge the beliefs of others. You were in favor of maybe a little bit of a softer approach rather than telling them that they’re stupid. My general question is, everybody seems to have the strategy, but what do you currently feel are the best tactics?
LK: I think it takes a thousand points of light. Sometimes you have to be in peoples faces. Sometimes you have to work with people who are afraid and help them in a way that makes them feel safe. It takes all types. I have friends who are scientists that say it’s awful that Richard Dawkins or myself speak out so forcefully. But, it’s really important for people who have a voice to use it and say that this is garbage.
I’m perhaps more willing now to speak out in a way that may seem offensive because to do otherwise is hypocritical. I used to argue assiduously that science cannot disprove the existence of God, so don’t claim that it can. And that’s true. But, to say that ignore the fact that science is inconsistent with all of the world’s sacred books is sort of hypocritical. It’s like not speaking out against astrology.
OR: Thank you very much for the conversation today. It was really enjoyable and I wish you much success in the future.

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