Physicist Lawrence Krauss on Our Cosmic Origins, the Beauty of Science, and Outgrowing Religion (video)
“The ideas of science make it so important for humans — it’s part of what makes being human worth being human, the ideas of science,”
Dr. Lawrence Krauss said.
On July 13, Dr. Krauss sat down with radio show host and producer Krista Tippett for the final interview in her week-long series based around the theme, “Inspire, Commit, Act.”
“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. 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 in a way with content that matters.”
Dr. Krauss is a theoretical physicist and foundation professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration and physics department at Arizona State University. He is a frequent contributor to publications such as The New York Times and Scientific American. He has authored many books, including, The Fifth Essence: The Search for Dark Matter in the Universe; Fear of Physics; and Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond.
In his conversation with Ms. Tippett in the Hall of Philosophy, Dr. Krauss discussed his own experience with religion, the excitement and beauty of science, scientific progress and the universe, how science can provide comfort, a positive understanding of life and provided a short lesson on the recently discovered Higgs boson particle.
Dr. Krauss was reared in a Jewish household, but religion was always considered the root of tradition and social machination rather than as a source of ideas:
“I read the Bible, I read the Quran, I read a bunch of things when I was a kid and went through phases where those myths appealed to me. And then I grew out of it — just like Santa Claus.”
Early in his life, his mother, who hoped he would become a doctor, pushed Dr. Krauss toward science. Reading about scientists and science further sparked his attention. As he, he focused his scholarship on physics.
“Physics was always, by far, the sexiest of the disciplines and still is by the way.”
Scientists do the work they do because it is fun and exciting, Dr. Krauss said. In our world and society, it is becoming increasingly common to view science from a narrow, utilitarian lens; essentially, people see science as the physical technologies it creates rather than the ideas it fosters.
“To me, one of the most exciting things about science is the ideas. Science has produced the most interesting ideas that humans have ever come up with.”
Dr. Krauss lamented that we live in an era where it has been both common and acceptable to be science illiterate. That is dangerous, especially when everything around us that keeps us alive is fueled by scientific research. It is shocking that the presidential candidates do not have a debate centered around science, he said.
In 1996, Dr. Krauss published The Physics of Star Trek. The physicist said he liked science fiction until he realized how much more exciting the scientific ideas, discoveries, and questions behind it could be.
“People imagine science fiction as an imaginative rendering of science, when in fact science is a far more imaginative rendering of science fiction.”
In the Star Trek narrative, two very important ideas are posited.
“The Star Trek future is a better place because of science. And I can’t resist saying it here, now that I think about it. It was one of the reasons in Star Trek that basically they’ve dispensed of the quaint notions, the myopic views of the 21st century, including most of the world religions.”
“All of the interesting questions that I can see in science, and for the most part in scholarship, are based on the topic of origins.”
In his work, Dr. Krauss asks questions about the origins of the universe, life, and consciousness. He asks questions that seem to combine both scientific and spiritual curiosities.
One vast difference, Dr. Krauss said, can be found hidden within the word “choice.” In religion, philosophy or theology, many questions and questions of origins are started with the word “why.” Dr. Krauss said he believes asking questions with the word “why” implies a presumption that there is a greater meaning, a greater significance, when in fact, no evidence points to that.
Science alters the kinds of questions we ask, because science is always progressing, pushing at the frontier and finding new knowledge so new questions must be asked, he said.
Two hundred years ago, when Darwin was studying and writing, he worked on understanding the origin of the diversity of species — he never attempted to define the origin of life, or the origin of matter, and he laughed off the notion that one ever would, Dr. Krauss said.
“But today, that’s exactly what we’re talking about,” he said.
The scientific world is full of ideas, questions, discoveries and failures. Often the information gathered by scientists challenges preconceived notions about the nature of the universe or religious beliefs.
“Being uncomfortable is a good thing, because it forces you to reassess your place in the cosmos. Being too comfortable means you’ve become complacent and you stop thinking. And so being uncomfortable should be a spiritually uplifting experience.”
One of the most important and widely discussed scientific discoveries in recent history is the Higgs boson. In his lecture, Dr. Krauss traced the recent progressions in scientific thought and understanding, which have allowed for the revolutionary finding. He discussed how that has expanded the scientific frontier and allowed for the eruption of a new set of questions and ideas.
The importance of the discovery reflects and celebrates a change in the understanding of the universe that took place approximately 50 years ago, Dr. Krauss said.
There are four basic forces of nature: electromagnetism, gravity, and strong and weak forces. At the start of the 1960s, only one of the forces — electromagnetism — was thought to be understood. By the end of that decade, scientists understood three of the four forces, Dr. Krauss said.
The realization that all forces could be understood by one mathematical formalism prompted that growth in understanding, Dr. Krauss said.
“You know you make a breakthrough in science when two things that seem very, very different suddenly are recognized as being different aspects of the same thing.”
In the ’60s, scientists proposed that electromagnetism, a long-range force that works across long distances, and weak force, a force that is responsible for nuclear reactions on the sun and is prompted by short-range interactions between nuclei, were fundamentally the same.
Forces are understood in physics as the exchange of particles. Historically, it was theorized that electromagnetism was a long-range force because the particle exchanged was a photon, which was massless. It was also thought that in weak force, particles were exchanged over minute distances, because the particles were massive.
But with the realization that those particles could be explained by the same math formula, the proposal came that those particles were essentially the same and massless, Dr. Krauss said. The only way that could be possible would be if there were an invisible field with which massless particles could relate.
“If this invisible field permeates all of space, you can’t see it, but if the particles that convey the weak force interact with that field and get slowed down like swimming through molasses, get retarded because of that interaction, they act like they’re massive, whereas the photon doesn’t — it remains massless. Then everything would work.”
Scientists are not in the business of creating forces, Dr. Krauss said. So following that proposal, physicists have been at work trying to detect that invisible force. Because if something exists, it should be detectable, Dr. Krauss said. If the field exists, scientists proposed that if they hit it with enough energy in a small enough region, an observable particle should be produced. That is what Higgs scientists think they have discovered.
“What’s really beautiful is every time we make a discovery in science, we end up having more questions than answers. Having discovered the Higgs does not close the book. We still don’t understand why this Higgs field exists in the universe, and by why I mean how.”
Mystery drives science, Dr. Krauss said. Though concepts such as religion, mysticism and other similar schools are based in mystery, the difference is science has changed the language of mystery and progresses with the gathering of real knowledge.
“Science has moved beyond, has taken us beyond our childhood.”
In the lecture, Ms. Tippett discussed the value of religion and spirituality for aiding, preparing, and comforting someone who is on his or her deathbed. She asked Dr. Krauss what science would be able to say to a dying person.
“Every single thing that religion provides, rationality, empiricism, and science can provide. And not only that — they can provide it better.”
People should be taught the truth about death — that it is a natural, necessary part of life and that it will happen. The meaning of life is the meaning you make of it, Dr. Krauss said. That knowledge should be instilled in people not just on their deathbeds, but throughout their lives, so they make decisions in a way that reflects that reality. Moral and ethical decisions cannot be made or decided without a basis in reality, Dr. Krauss said.
“If the stars tonight realigned themselves and said ‘I am here,’ in Greek — presumably, ancient Greek — then I’d say, ‘Maybe there’s something to all of this.’ ”
He said, though, that when there is no evidence of something, it becomes highly unlikely.
“It seems to me the knowledge that the meaning we have is the meaning we make should inspire us to do better.”
Ms. Tippett asked Dr. Krauss whether he would appreciate or understand religion more if he experienced it in a different way. She read Dr. Krauss a passage from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”
Wise people can come from any background, Dr. Krauss said. Wisdom is born of experience and knowledge, and there have been many wise thinkers and writers from religion, such as Maimonides. However, he said, he is often confused by why people who are so wise feel they still need religion.
“There’s beauty in the paintings that Leonardo da Vinci and others, Michelangelo and others, did in context of religion. That’s just a response to the culture of the time, and I don’t see why given what you know now you can’t have that same wisdom without discarding the provincial basis of it.”
In the closing minutes of the lecture hour, Ms. Tippett and Dr. Krauss discussed the scientific refutation of the historical precedent to create “us versus them” scenarios, which often lead to prejudice, violence, and inhumanity. He said:
“Science can provide a realistic basis of understanding how artificial and myopic the definitions of us versus our enemies are. We’re made of their atoms. And every atom in our body was once inside a star that exploded. One of the most poetic things I know about the universe is that we’re all stardust. These are amazing things and they have content and they’re true.”
This article appears courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily. Photo by Eric Shea.