First published on 28 Mar 2012. Updated on 29 Mar 2012.
Lawrence M. Krauss may not be a household name at the level of colleagues like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, but that may well change with the publication of his latest book A Universe from Nothing: why there is something rather than nothing. In it the US-born (and periodically Canberra-based) theoretical physicist, professor and author of The Physics of Star Trek explains, in entertainingly clear terms, how the latest research into astronomy, cosmology and quantum physics makes it theoretically possible for a universe to pop into existence, thereby giving the first non-philosophical answer to the question “so, why is there a universe at all, exactly?”
When he’s not exploring the nature of the cosmos (his 1995 paper on the physics of the expanding universe ‘The cosmological constant is back’, was the first published work to define what the paper’s co-author Michael Turner was to subsequently name “dark energy”) he’s a fierce advocate for science education and for science-based policy making in government. Ahead of his appearance at the Opera House with the aforementioned Dawkins
, Andrew P Street
picks his considerable brains.
What on Earth are you doing in Canberra? It’s a nice part of the world, especially this time of year. I’m often here in the winter and it’s a little cold – especially since they haven’t discovered central heating, as far as I can tell. [laughs] I come here quite regularly. I have distinguished visiting professorship at Mount Stromo [Observatory], so I'm here on average every six weeks or so. And I have a partner who lives in Canberra.
That’s a hell of a commute to pull off from the US. It is quite a commute; I often tell her that if she lived further away she’d be closer. [laughs] And there are other activities that I’ll do in Australia that I probably can’t talk about yet, related to helping improve physics in the country. So we’ll see.
That’s great to hear, since it does seem that scientific literacy has fallen off the cultural radar in the last 15 or 20 years. Yeah, absolutely. Living in the States it’s worse than that. It’s not that it’s fallen off the radar, its something to be vilified. I just wrote a piece, in fact, about our current [Republican] presidential candidates, who have never met any empirical data that they have ever found that they agree with.
I remember when Obama was up for election and there was quite serious discussion in the US media at the time about whether the fact that he kept referring to things like “science” and “evidence” was tactically weak. Yeah, and at the time I ran and created an organization called Science Debate 2008 which tried to get a presidential debate on issues on science and technology. We did succeed in something unprecedented, which was to get Obama and McCain to answer 14 questions related to science and technology policy. And then I became an advisor to Obama and science policy during his campaign, although I don’t have any relationship to the administration now.
Have you been tempted just to flee to a more sane nation? It’s scary what’s been happening, I mean it really is, but I have to keep one foot in the United States because it’s the place where you have to fight it the most. Several years ago they asked me to replace my friend Richard Dawkins at Oxford, to have his chair [as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science] after he retired but I felt I had to fight the good fight in the US.
In your opinion, why do so many people fear science? Unfortunately, I think it’s ideology and religion. Ideology, in the sense that a lot of people are making a lot of money on things that produce climate change and it's in their interest for people to be confused and have the information distorted or censored. So that’s one thing, and then the other is fear of science, that science might undermine faith. I think the case is that people are afraid that science will undermine their prejudices – and of course it will! – and that has caused a lot of people to make the choice that they would rather have faith than knowledge. But that’s the great thing about science: it causes us to recognise when we’re wrong.
I can see how it can be confronting for people at first glance – especially in a field like cosmology, where every new discovery, from universal inflation to dark energy and dark matter re-emphasises just how small and insignificant our planet is, let alone our species, and much less our individual lives… [Physicist] Richard Feynman used to argue very strongly that the easiest person to fool is yourself because everything that happens to you seems significant. And I think what science does is force you to go outside yourself – and, of course, reality is fascinating. The universe has a much greater imagination than we do, which is why the real story of the universe is far more interesting than any of the fairy tales we have invented to describe it.
Is that what drew you to physics and cosmology? That’s one of the reasons why I do what I do. My new book is not so much an attack on religion as it is a celebration of the remarkable revolutions in cosmology over the last 50 years that have completely changed our picture of the universe and the plausibility, at least, that the universe can be created without any divine intervention, from nothing, and it doesn’t violate any laws of nature.
But the mere fact that you’re showing that it is plausible that there was no prime mover must be confronting to some people: God’s been pushed back and back and back in terms of his role in creation, so if you can show that the universe can spontaneously appear out of nothing then… there’s no real place for God left? That’d be wonderful. If [quantum physics is] true, as I say in the last line of my book, it makes god unnecessary and redundant, but either way I find that very pleasing. I am more in the mould of my friend Christopher Hitchens: I don’t define myself as an atheist, I am more of an anti-theist. I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but I’d much rather live in a universe without one.
As liberating as that idea is, I can see why people would find it terrifying. You’re right: it’s threatening in one sense but it’s kind of amazing what happens even if you just raise the question [about the origin of the universe]. We are supposed to praise people who question and try to understand things and don’t take things on faith. And yet, just merely asking the question – not dogmatically stating an answer, but simply asking the question – automatically gets this response that it’s threatening. I think the reason that people react so strongly to the potential threat to their faith is that they ultimately realize that their faith is shaky.
And so we’re right back to fear. Exactly. And of course science is based on a completely shakeable faith: I mean, I’m willing to throw out things I believe in tomorrow if they are proved to be wrong, and that’s what’s wonderful about science.
Dawkins is a notoriously hard-line atheist, and Hitchens was very vocal about thinking religion was poisonous, but you seem to have a slightly different take on the idea of faith. I think Richard and I have somewhat different views: my main interest is not so much destroying religion as educating people about the wonder of the universe. And if as a side benefit we get rid of religion, that’s fine, and I think ultimately that’s the direction it will take us in – but that’s not my goal. My goal is to say “look, let’s just try to understand the universe, let’s try to be guided both on a grand scale in science and on a more local scale in politics and public policy by empirical reality, because if we don’t, we’re screwed.”
A Universe from Nothing: why there is something rather than nothing is out now through Simon & Schuster