Author: Andrew Zimmerman Jones
I had the privilege of meeting with acclaimed cosmologist and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the evening of Monday, April 7, 2014. We met at Wexner Auditorium on the campus of Ohio State University, prior to a showing of his documentary The Unbelievers (in which he co-stars with famed atheist and zoologist Richard Dawkins). Our discussion, though brief – I was the only thing standing between Dr. Krauss and his dinner – covered a wide range of intriguing topics. A summary of the interview is also on the website, but here is the full text (with some edits of my own “ums” and “ahs” and filler rambling):
Andrew Jones: So, the Origins Project just literally had its fifth anniversary.
Lawrence Krauss: Yes, on Saturday [April 5, 2014].
AJ: I’ve seen some of the videos from it. You guys (sic) host the Great Debates.
LK: Yes, we just had a Great Debate with 3,000 people on Saturday.
AJ: What I really like about the work I see coming out of there is that it’s a very interdisciplinary look at origins.
LK: Everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of consciousness, so it’s about as interdisciplinary as you can get. We call it transdisciplinary. That’s the buzzword at ASU [Arizona State University]. But we try to bring together people from vastly different fields to look at forefront questions and look at them in different ways and see which questions we can make progress in. And these questions, since they’re foundational, are often of interest to the public, so we often have a public event associated with them.
AJ: Obviously, you got into that through cosmology and the origins of the universe, but what made you decide you wanted to make that the origins of everything?
LK: Well, actually, I began to think about this back when I lived here in this state of Ohio, but as I was thinking of ways to get people interested in the subject, I realized that cosmology, as exciting as it is, alone is just part of the question and that one could bring together lots of different fields and when I started to think about it, I realized that origins questions are really at the heart of the forefront of science. And, as you may or may not know, I have a broad interest in science, well beyond physics, and so I just thought: Well, since origins questions are at the forefront of science, and they are also at the forefront of the public’s interest, it would be a wonderful handle to allow us to look at really interesting questions anywhere, they all fit in an origins framework. And it would allow us to do just what we’ve done, to bring together people from different fields and it’s been incredibly successful. It was ambitious and I think a lot of people thought it wouldn’t work, but it did.
AJ: Yes, I wish something like that had been in place when I’d graduated. I have an undergraduate degree in physics. And, in addition to just being kind of tired of 16 years of college [I meant school], I also kind of got the sense there wasn’t much left to do, because at the time they were writing books like The End of Physics and so on.
LK: Yeah, I know, and that’s an unfortunate thing.
AJ: So if something like this had been there to make it clear how many good, rich questions there were still.
LK: Exactly! We tend to treat physics for kids as if it was done 200 years ago by dead, white men, but that’s just not it, though. The questions are vibrant and they’re of interest and they’re accessible to people, which is one of the reasons that I write and speak about them. Yeah, it’s unfortunate the way that we turn people off by doing that. And ASU, when the President of the university invited me to come, they were particularly attracted by this idea of interdisciplinary. I am part of a school of Earth and Space Exploration that has astronomers, astrophysics, geophysicists, planetary scientists, engineers, all in one place looking at these things. An example of the kind of interdisciplinary work we’re doing.
AJ: So, to get back to cosmology. Of course, your last book [A Universe From Nothing] was on the origins of …
LK: … the universe.
AJ: … of everything. And one thing I know you’ve answered in previous interviews, and I think in The Atlantic interview you really clarified this point, but so just since I have you here, I’ll just double check that my understanding is correct. The book, as I read it, is not saying that this is definitely what happened, it’s saying that we have an explanation of what could have happened. Is that a fair statement?
LK: We have a plausible explanation of what could have happened. More importantly, if you asked “What would be the characteristics of a universe created by nothing ... created from nothing by known laws of physics?” our universe has precisely those characteristics. Now does that prove it happened? No, because we don’t have a theory of quantum gravity, but it’s plausible. It’s become a lot more plausible in the last few weeks, with the discoveries from the cosmic microwave background and the gravitational radiation, which in principle take us back and directly allow us to measure what happened in the first 10-35 seconds of the big bang. But it was just that: This is plausible. And just having a plausible explanation is remarkable. Just like when Darwin developed the theory of evolution, he was plausible. He didn’t have all the data. He had fossil ideas and he had data suggesting this idea worked, and actually compellingly suggesting that it worked, but he didn’t know about DNA or the genetic basis of life and now we do, but at the time it was a plausible argument.
AJ: One of the things that I really like about things you’ve said repeatedly about science is about being honest about how we look at questions and not assuming we have the answer before we start.
LK: No, I think that’s … I mean, we teach kids as if the answers are important. It’s the questions that are important. And I think that not knowing is a wonderful thing and more parents and more teachers should be willing to say that. “I don’t know the answer. Let’s figure out how we might learn what the answer is.” Because that’s what we’re trying to teach in schools. It’s a process. Science is a process of trying to take this complicated world and figure things out and that means not knowing things and try to figure out how to get the answer. And not knowing is what I do for a living.
AJ: In research for this, I read your article on the recent inflation results … the gravity wave article. And I loved that you said, “I did this thing a few years ago. Now that didn’t turn out to be right.” You would never hear a theologist …
LK: Yeah, they know they’re right, which means they don’t know anything.
AJ: But, I loved the honesty about, “We tried this. It didn’t work.” And scientists embrace that, because it leads us forward.
LK: Yeah, well, absolutely. I think, um …
AJ: That wasn’t really a question.
LK: No, I think honesty is a key part of science. Honesty and full disclosure. I like to try and think I do that, take that beyond science. But being wrong is a central part of science and being willing to say you’re wrong. In fact, Woody Allen says in our movie, too, he talks about it. I think the point is that’s how we make progress. I have had, I think, many beautiful ideas and unfortunately nature wasn’t smart enough to adopt them.
AJ: So, I have a couple of questions that are related to again kind of the questions of origins. I was wondering of one thing. In the past, you have expressed … I’m not sure if skepticism is quite the right word, but not exactly being “on board” with string theory as enthusiastically as some people are. Is that still kind of a fair assessment? Or was that ever really fair? Because it’s hard to get a clear handle on it. Or does that fall in the “we don’t know” category?
LK: I wrote a book, called Hiding in the Mirror, which I called a “fair and balanced look at string theory,” in the non-FOX News sense. My point was that string theory is based on a lot of fascinating ideas. However, it has been the least successful great idea in science in the sense that it hasn’t yet made touch with observation in any way. We still don’t know if the ideas of string theory are right. They’re really well motivated; it’s not as if they aren’t well motivated. But it was strongly hyped. And I guess I was against the hype, not the theory. It’s not even a theory. It’s unfair to evolution to call string theory a theory. It’s not a theory. A theory is something that has been tested robustly by experiment and it’s unfair to evolution to call it a theory. I said that many years ago and Brian Greene used to get mad at me, but now he agrees with me. But I think the point is that it’s fascinating and we’re studying it, it just hasn’t had any great successes in terms of demonstrating that it can help us understand the universe. Maybe it will one day. And, as I say, some of my best students have become string theorists, I just wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one. No, just kidding.
AJ: One question I had was about the Higgs boson. One thing that I’ve heard, and I’ve gotten mixed results from different people in the science community, so I’ll get your take on it. I’ve heard that the Higgs boson that’s seen is kind of the garden-variety Higgs. There’s no evidence of supersymmetry …
LK: No, there’s no evidence at all, and it’s very disconcerting to many people, because … Actually, many of us thought, I thought – another example of being wrong – I thought supersymmetry would be seen before the Higgs. It was easier, in principle, to be seen at the Large Hadron Collider. So the fact that it hasn’t been seen is telling. Now, what happens when the Large Hadron Collider turns on again next year will be quite important. Now I’d say that there’s more evidence that supersymmetry might be correct after the discovery of gravitational waves from the big bang, because the scale that’s picked out is the scale of grand unification which is picked out if supersymmetry is part of things. So, it gives me maybe a little more confidence that supersymmetry may be seen, but it’s kind of remarkable that it’s all working out at that scale. But if supersymmetry isn’t seen at the Large Hadron Collider, then we know that we’re missing something important. And it’s a nightmare scenario. If only the Higgs is seen, in some sense, it’s a nightmare scenario, because it doesn’t tell us what is happening.
AJ: Well, let’s discuss the film for a few minutes. One thing I’m curious about, and this is probably something you address in the film, but what motivated you to go from kind of the straight just “here’s the facts” science to really being an advocate for atheism, if that’s not overstating it.
LK: I’m not an advocate for atheism; I’m an advocate for science, and that I’ve always been, so there’s nothing new about that. What I am is … By being an advocate for science I’m asking people to be willing to accept the reality, the empirically reality of the universe, the evidence. Having their beliefs conform to evidence, rather than the other way around. And, naturally, that implies – since there is no evidence of purpose to the universe – that implies that the tenets of organized religion in the world are not consistent with science. And one should be willing and upfront to say that. I think that by pretending there are some things which are not subject to questioning, we do everyone a disservice. And so, I think the point, what really got me involved in it was, again, in Ohio, right here, in Columbus, where this movie is. I got involved in the Board of Education here in Ohio was trying to essentially get rid of the teaching of evolution in schools and the biologists weren’t speaking up and I had a public pulpit, so I spoke up, and it got me involved and I came here to a big even with the school board for 1,500 people, me and another scientist debating these two nudnicks from the Discovery Institute. And that kind of got me, just protecting science from religious dogmatism, that sort of established that. And once that happened, I’ve been fighting that fight. And I’m against religious dogmatism. It’s not as if I’m out to be an advocate for anything. Except, atheism is just open questioning. It’s not a belief system. It’s just saying you don’t accept things without evidence or good reason for accepting them and that you allow your beliefs to change. As you pointed out, being wrong is really a central part of science. It’s not a central part of religion, where you assume the answers before you ask the questions, and that does a disservice to thinking and action. And if you don’t base your public policy on sound empirical evidence, then the public policy is going to be irrational. And we can’t afford that in the modern world.
AJ: What is your next project after this?
LK: Well, I have a lot of projects. I’m in the middle of scientific papers. I just wrote, what, 2 last week, because of these new discoveries. I’m writing a new book, but I won’t go into that yet, except that it will follow up on A Universe from Nothing, in a different sense, and address more of the question of why we’re here rather than could something come from nothing. Another fundamental question that in some sense is a religious one. And what I want to do, what I’ve done with these books is show that these fundamental questions that have been the basis of theology and philosophy, science is addressing in new ways. And it’s changing what we mean, but that’s okay. That’s okay. It’s called learning.