How Lawrence Krauss Came Into Being with Sketchnotes of Our Interview with the Theoretical Physicist

Friday, April 12, 2013 - 11:30 am

How Lawrence Krauss Came Into Being with Sketchnotes of Our Interview with the Theoretical Physicist

            Science changes our perspective of our place in the cosmos, just like art, music, and literature.

This encapsulation by sketchnote artist Doug Neill has to be one of my favorite ideas from Krista’s interview with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. It’s derived from this part of their conversation:

“Most people don’t have to know how to build the detailed things of science, but the ideas change our perspective of our place in the cosmos. And to me, that’s what great art, music, and literature is all about — is when you see a play or see a painting or hear a wonderful piece of music. In some sense, it changes your perspective of yourself. And that’s what science does in a profoundly important way and a way with content that matters.”

Early one evening in November 1996, my wife convinced me to attend an evening lecture at the University of Minnesota. The presenter: Professor Krauss. The subject: the physics of Star Trek. Yes, he debunked a lot of the pseudo-science in the popular television series, but, more importantly, he explained why and how through accessible demonstrations. He opened up possibilities — diving into phenomena like warp drive and wormholes (using a colorful balloon). He offered fresh ways of thinking about my place, our place, in the universe.
A decade later, shortly into my tenure on this program, I pitched Dr. Krauss as a possible interview with Krista. It didn’t take. I admit it was a soft-sell, and we weren’t quite ready as a nascent program to bring on a somewhat strident atheist. I didn’t have the chops or the clout at that time to fight for him as a guest. It took several years, but I found another opportunity to re-pitch him again while compiling a list of potential guests for a grant proposal. Again, he didn’t quite fit the bill because of the terms of the grant.
Then, last summer, the Chautauqua Institution reached out to Krista asking her to host a week-long series of conversations based on the theme “Inspire. Commit. Act.” Lawrence Krauss could add another dimension to this theme.
Lawrence Krauss at the Chautauqua Institution
And so I pitched him again to Krista:

“I see Krauss as a ‘public scientist’ in much the same way as a ‘public theologian’ functions. He may be recalcitrant on the religion front, but there are a large segment of people who think the same way.

For me, Krauss was a dynamic speaker who had this fantastic way of relating science — physics and space more specifically — in terms of popular culture. He knows how to play to a crowd, and he’s kinetic when in motion. And he’s funny. His sense of humor may be a way to disarm him and liberate him from caustic characteristics.

A general audience could find a way in to some of the most complex ideas of the governing principles of the universe through his demonstrations: the curvature of spacetime and wormholes, for example, with a balloon and two fingers meeting each other in the middle by pressing on both sides. (This resonated during the production of our Kissling show when she was discussing how two sides could meet without giving way on their positions.) He did this through what I believe to be his most popular book, “The Physics of Star Trek.”

I wonder if you couldn’t take the current news about the Higgs boson discovery and explore that popular imagination with him. Why does this inspire people, even if they don’t have a clue about what it means? What does he see as his developing role + responsibility in relating and explaining news like this? And how can we infuse this scientific sense of wonder and awe about some of the smallest, least understandable particles in the universe and translate that into not only our education/science education, but also into our public dialogue about role of science in our religious and spiritual lives?

I’d like to hear his advice on what he’s learned and what he does that brings science alive. If he can offer tips, operating principles, for those faithful audience members to take back to their churches or worship groups for a better conversation, I think that might be a living gift to them.

You will charm him, no doubt, with your own fascination with science. Let that be your guide.

Krista liked this framing. The organizers at Chautauqua appreciated an uncharacteristic guest. And, finally, after years of trying, we had our interview.

The result: “Our Origins and The Weight of Space.”
This process has been a lesson to me, and I hope can be helpful for other producers and idea people. If you think a person or an idea is worth pursuing, try and try again. Eventually you will figure out the right way to give voice to your idea and present it to a larger public. As a result, our public dialogue will be the richer for the effort.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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