Lawrence Krauss – In Search Of Nothing | Extended Version
There’s a lot of exciting things going on in the world of physics right now. Gravitational waves potentially being detected for the first time and the brightest supernova ever detected ASASSN-151h was also recently found. Could you elaborate on those findings and how much excitement it’s generating?
Yeah, it could be an incredible year if all goes well. The LIGO apparatus in Washington and Louisiana, which is the biggest gravitational wave interferometer in the world, is looking for gravitational waves from the most cataclysmic astrophysical events around. It has been upgraded to the point where it should be sensitive to such events in our galaxy or galaxies that aren’t too far away and there have been rumours that maybe they’ve already seen something. So the community is very excited about it. If indeed they have found something then it will open up a totally new window on the universe because gravitational waves will allow us to see literally to the edge of black holes and understand and explore gravity in incredibly strong regimes where we haven’t been able to see it before. I think it will become the astronomy of the 21st Century.
At the same time there’s another important thing happening. The Large Hadron Collider has been turned on again and has also been upgraded. As you know it discovered the Higgs particle a few years ago but now we’re looking beyond the Higgs to try and understand why forces have the nature that they do and why particles have the masses that they do. Recently there was evidence from the Large Hadron Collider of a new totally unexpected elementary particle. If it really is true (and at this point we don’t know) then it will force us to change a lot of ideas about where we’re going in particle physics. That result may not prove to be accurate but there could easily be a result like it in the next year or so.
And as you said the most powerful supernova ever discovered was seen, it was about six hundred billion times the brightness of our sun. So every time we use our new telescopes we find new and amazing things. The universe is a big place and an old place where strange and rare events happen all the time.
You work within many different areas. You’re a professional advocate for science and reason, a cosmologist, a public intellectual, a physicist, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University studying many different kinds of origins of life in the universe. Does that about cover it?
I think you missed a few of my hats. I’m also chairman of the board of atomic scientists, which is trying, and has tried since 1945 to alert the public to the dangers of nuclear war and other existential threats that we need to take care of.
Is that something to do with Nick Bostrom?
Well Nick Bostrom is interested in similar things it’s true. We run something called the Doomsday Clock which you should have been alerted to on Tuesday, January 26th, every year we unveil the new time of the clock, last year it was set at three minutes to midnight, it’s been going back and forth for the last sixty years. I think it’s an important thing to alert people to the dangers of nuclear war and climate change. So that’s something else I do that’s important to me. I’m on the board of sponsors of that which was started originally by Einstein and Oppenheimer a long time ago.
Anyway what my day to day life is like is somewhat like today where I’m desperately trying to do some work but I’m also taking time out to talk to journalists and also writing. I’m trying to finish the forward of a book that I promised to write for someone and I’m touching up an article for the New Yorker that I’ve just written. I’m trying to reach out to one of my graduate students to talk about a paper we’re working on. So it depends. My life is different every day because I have a lot of hats. Usually it’s hectic. Happily I’m not travelling today, tomorrow I will be. I spend a lot of time travelling, either filming or lecturing or meeting with people. But I can write on planes and nowadays even email on planes. So in some way planes are wonderful places for me. I can work uninterrupted for three to five hours.
The other thing I’m doing today which is relevant is related to the professional position that I’m most proud of. I moved to Arizona State to direct something called the origins project which looks at everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of consciousness and beyond. We’re having a big event this Friday and a lot of my time is spent coordinating those events, organising them and preparing for them. Both scientific workshops and public events where we get up to 3,000 people paying to see events on science which I think is almost unprecedented around the world. So a lot of my time today has been spent preparing my own presentation and coordinating and working with the other panelists to make sure we have a good event.
In principle I’m a very busy man. But I’m basically pretty lazy so if didn’t fill up my time with lots of things I think I might not do anything.
I read your most recent book A Universe From Nothing. A book with some very weighty topics about the universe, the crux of it based on the idea that our universe arose out of ‘nothing’. Richard Dawkins called the book potentially the most important scientific book since Darwin’s Origin of Species. But out of all the countless interviews you’ve done related to the book, one statement stuck out for me – “Understanding the nature of dark energy will inevitably change our picture of virtually everything because it’s totally inexplicable.” Can you elaborate on that point?
Physics progresses most when it’s presented with paradoxes. The major developments of the Twentieth Century, from relativity to quantum mechanics all involve paradoxes, things that previously seemed inexplicable. The energy of empty space is something that we simply don’t understand at all. Empty space should have zero energy because there’s nothing there, but quantum mechanically things are different. We know that empty space isn’t so empty. There’s a bubbling brew of virtual particles bumping in and out of existence all the time. If you take a bit of space and get rid of all the particles and radiation you’ll find it weighs something, and we don’t have the slightest understanding why. But clearly it’s going to determine the future of the universe and it means there’s something fundamental about both quantum mechanics and gravity that we need to understand that we don’t. Potentially not only will understanding that tell us the future of the universe but it will probably shed light on the very beginning of the universe where quantum gravitational processes may have led to the creation of our universe out of nothing.
In lieu of understanding such important problems, I’m reminded of a discussion you had with Sam Harris not so long ago where you said, “comprehending such large issues such as the emergence of something from nothing violates common sense all of the time. Quantum mechanics which governs the behavior of our universe on very small scales is full of such craziness which defies common sense in the traditional sense.” Are we cognitively equipped to answer questions of such magnitude about the universe?
Well we don’t know. That’s the great thing about science. No one knows what our limits are and we won’t know until we try. So far we haven’t come up against those limits and maybe one day we will but the only way to know is keep trying. Common sense is not a guide to how the universe works. The great thing about science is that it takes us beyond the realm of the familiar. Certainly we should be skeptical but we should also be guided by experiment and force our beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around.
Richard Dawkins has said that cosmology needs a Darwin. What’s your response to that?
I think we need great new scientists, that’s true. I was pleased that in the afterward of my book in some vague way Richard compared it to The Origin of Species, which is certainly hyperbolic. The Origin of Species is one of the most important books ever written but the spirit of my book is the same which is to say what Darwin did was show that the incredible diversity and complexity of life on earth could arise by natural processes simply on the basis of natural selection and evolution. What I try to show in the book is that science can describe how an incredibly diverse, complex, rich, mass of universe could arise by simple processes from something far simpler and in fact in the case as I describe it maybe nothing at all.
The last stage involves science, which is at the limits of what we understand. We can only argue about what’s plausible, but in fact Darwin didn’t know about DNA or the details of genetics when he discussed natural selection and evolution. He was discussing what was plausible based on evidence even then so we need new insights and we need new experiments that will reveal to us which direction to go in because theoretical physicists like me, we can go off on lots of interesting tangents but ultimately physics and cosmology and all of science are empirical disciplines, guided by experiment and that’s very important. We don’t just make us stories. We have to be constrained by observations.
One thing that the Brazilian physicist and astronomer, Marcelo Glieser said about that point is that, “within this area there’s a lot of implicit assumptions made, and then it goes into an area of meta-science where you have to go beyond science”, he’s saying we have to be cautious.
Well we should always be cautious and sceptical. I don’t understand people when they talk about these pseudo philosophical terms like meta-science. You can try and classify things but when you’re doing it its clear what’s happening. It’s clear what science is and what it isn’t. We’re guided by lots of things like speculation and prejudice. But ultimately what makes sense is nature and that’s not our predispositions, it’s not our meta-theories, it’s not anything. So of course scientists are guided by certain ideas and there are fads in science but ultimately the great thing about science is that all of that disappears in the end and the science remains. The sciences being these descriptions that allow correct predictions about how systems will behave and give us a better insight into the fundamental workings of the universe. Those are all governed by and constrained by the empirical world. Otherwise we’d be off on so many tangents that we wouldn’t get anywhere.
So one can talk about meta theories but I think, when you’re at the limits of knowledge, which is where I send some of my time, things are always uncertain and it’s not clear where the right direction is. There are many different guides such as simplicity, mathematical beauty, hunches and intuition, all sorts of things, but best of all experiment will guide us.
You’ve previously stated that asking what actually took place before the Big Bang is illogical.
Yeah it’s one of the examples where common sense might break down. We think every ‘after’ has a ‘before’ but general relativity tells us that space and time are tied together intimately and therefore when space came into existence time may have come into existence. There may be no time before the big bang, nothing we can think of in those terms and therefore the question, what happened before the big bang? Literally may make no sense. Science forces us to think of new ways to define questions. It could be that there is no time before the big bang. That doesn’t mean we can’t understand anything about it but it could mean the mathematical concepts we have to think about are not well described by classical quantities like time or maybe even space.
Can they be answered by questions? I don’t know if that makes sense but going back to what you were talking about in terms of common sense breaking down. . .
Questions are important. Asking good questions is really a large part of what science is all about. In fact as I’ve written elsewhere encouraging kids to ask questions is really the central part of education. Scientists are good at asking questions and being driven to the right questions by nature. And to some extent that’s where philosophy can play a role. Philosophy has been useful in those areas of science where the questions aren’t well defined. Philosophy can help define those questions that are then taken up by scientists and move beyond the realm of philosophy. So if we keep thinking of questions they can guide our investigations.
You’ve said this will be the first time that this will be remembered as an age of cosmology, “where the human mind first internalised the cosmos that gave rise to it.” So where do we go from here? What are the big questions that still remain?
There are lots of questions. There are some profound questions that amazingly we may be able to answer such as, is our universe unique? It’s the question that Einstein once asked when he said, “did god have a choice in the creation of the universe?” He didn’t mean god but what he meant was, is there a unique set of laws of physics? Does the universe have to be the way it is or could there be many universes and ours is just one possibility? That question is central and we’re actually making progress and may be able to answer it. Which would be profoundly important.
You’re talking about the multiverse theory?
Exactly. And it turns out if we see gravitational waves from the beginning of time, that may be able to give us a handle on theories that tell us if there really is a multiverse. The real question I care about is, does the universe have to be the way that it is? Or indeed are we just another cosmic accident?
Beyond that I’d certainly like to know what the nature of the dominant stuff that makes up the universe is, why empty space has energy. After all I was driven to it early on and proposed that it was there based on observations and indeed it was discovered to be there. It would be wonderful to understand it because it’s the biggest outstanding mystery in physics.
And there are other questions such as, what’s the ultimate state of matter? Do black holes exist? If they do then there’s some paradoxes potentially in physics involving the nature of black holes we’d like to understand.
On a more practical sense there are lots of other exciting things happening. Physics is being applied to biology in trying to understand how biological systems like RNA and DNA work. Whether we might be able to build new kinds of computers based on quantum mechanics. But what I really think is most exciting is the discoveries that I can’t even predict. It would be so sad if we knew everything that was going to come out. The really amazing discoveries are the ones that we didn’t expect and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
We have a presidential election coming up with some very interesting and questionable candidates to say the least. You’ve talked about the importance of science in issues such as the environment, national security, health and energy. Are you worried that there’s not enough science present in policy making?
Of course I’m worried about it! I get mad, I get worried, and I write as a result of that. I think we’re far from using empirical data to guide public policy and the presidential election is a perfect example. We have one party in particular that seems to be anti-science. I’m actually trying to get a debate between the presidential candidates on the issues that really matter such as health, the environment and energy. Science issues basically. But those issues are not being addressed at all, in the midst of a lot of hyperbole and ideology and fear. It’s really important in these times, where there are great challenges such as climate change, that we enter the 21st century with an open mind. But no one will address those issues if they’re afraid to recognise that they exist. One of the reasons I write and speak is that I’m fortunate enough to have a public voice and I can try to have an impact on some level to get people talking and hopefully acting on those issues.
Let’s turn to your crusade against organised religion, something you’ve been very vocal about during your career. In a piece you wrote for the New Yorker, you said, “Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance.”
Yes. I think Richard Dawkins put it nicely in the recent movie we did, The Unbelievers. He basically said that evolution helped our brains develop to be able to do certain things and now we have to live with many different challenges. We learned how to avoid lions on the savanna but not do quantum mechanics and not to foresee, to plan for the century ahead. I think its imperative for us to realise that we can’t rely on things like straightforward common sense when we’re dealing with the universe as a whole. We also have to be skeptical about our approach to things instead of being certain when we haven’t done any research as politicians do. One has to be skeptical about what one reads and hears and the public when thinking about whom to vote for need to be skeptical in that way too.
A lot of evangelicals are reporting that they love Donald Trump’s honesty. Well that’s an amazing thing for a man who clearly creates fabrications all the time. To be impressed by his honesty means you’re not being skeptical of what you hear. And we need to be skeptical if we’re going to make any progress.
Does the word militant atheist irritate you?
Yes. It irritates me a lot because it’s meaningless. It’s a term that’s been created to minimise and marginalise something that is prevalent throughout the world and makes it seem as if it’s somehow controversial or inappropriate. What is a militant atheist? Someone who speaks out openly questioning whether god is necessary to create a universe or questioning the doctrines of religion. But in every other area of human activity we celebrate questioning, and skepticism. It’s important that we do that but somehow when you question religion you’re a militant. What does it mean? Does it mean you write pamphlets or something? It’s an oxymoron and what it really means is people who are openly willing to discuss their thoughts about religion. Part of the problem of society is that we’re not supposed to. Why are we not supposed to? Because it’s sacred. But in a healthy society nothing is sacred.
I’ve watched a lot of dialogues you’ve had with many religious apologists. Why do you care so much? What really frustrates you about people having such strong religious beliefs?
It’s not religion I care about, it’s reality. What bothers me is that far too often-religious dogma gets in the way of people’s willingness to celebrate and accept the real world for what it is. Building a society on myth and superstition leads us to make bad decisions. But my major interest is in getting people to be amazed by the real universe. It’s not about putting down religion. I only got involved in this argument about religion because it was interfering with education. There were people who were trying to get rid of the teaching of evolution in high schools. They were attacking science because somehow they felt that science got in the way of their belief for god. So I was defending science.
But since then I’ve come to realise that there’s much more insidious things that religion is responsible for. I get letters from people all the time who have been made to feel like they’re bad people for simply asking questions. They find suddenly they’re unable to believe the stories they’re told and they’re often ostracized because of that. People feeling alone and bad for simply recognising that they don’t believe in certain stories. Again in any other area of human activity you wouldn’t be told you’re bad for not accepting stories, it would be a discussion. Religion should not be the basis of morality. The sacred books have no morality that I can see.
Richard Dawkins said of religion and its influence on culture, “the religious lobby is getting desperate to the point where it looks like a wounded animal and it’s in its death throes.” Is that something you’d agree with?
I wish it were that far. There’s no doubt in the first world the belief in god is monotonically decreasing. In Iceland there’s essentially no one between 25 and 34 who believes that god had anything to do with the creation of the universe and the difference between them and people 55 to 80 is amazing. It’s changed in a single generation. The fact that fewer people are identifying with any specific religion obviously causes waves of fear and indignation in the heads of those institutions and causes them to lash out. They feel threatened and it’s amazing that in the United States religious people feel threatened in any way but I think there’s some of that. I think the vocal anti-science, the vocal need to combat people like Richard and me comes out of a fear that somehow they’re losing ground.
Assuming the demise of religion then, can you conceive of a new kind of spirituality emerging?
I can conceive of a lot of things but I try not to make predictions about the future except for two trillion years from now because it’s easy, and no one will be around to check me anyway. I’ve already said it and you know what my answer is going to be. I find spirituality when I look at a Hubble space telescope picture, when I see images of the galaxy, when I see the details of a cell. If spirituality is awe and wonder and appreciation of a vast cosmos beyond ourselves, science is full of that. Religion provides lots of things, a sense of community, if it didn’t it wouldn’t be evolutionary so successful. The question is, can we have those things without fictional dogmas? I think we can. We can try to find way to bring people together in other commonalities. In fact religion is pretty good at not bringing people together. But the Large Hadron Collider is an example of something that does bring people together. There are thousands of physicists from hundreds of countries speaking dozens of languages all working together for a common theme. I can imagine a world where people are brought together by real commonalities to celebrate real wonders and real excitement and as I said once before, the spirituality of science is so much better than the spirituality of religion because it’s real.
I think you said something even better, “Forget Jesus, the stars died for you.”
Yes. But there’s no doubt that religion provides many things that help people get through the day so it’s naive to pretend you could just dispense with it. The question you ask is, what does it provide and how can we provide these things without such negative aspects of building hatred, fear and ignorance. Because that is what religion tends to do.
Another provocative point that the Brazilian physicist and astronomer Marcelo Glieser brought up in his discussion with you was “the search for the unification of nature is really our rationalisation of the nature of god, it’s sort of a way of thinking about god through the tools of science.” What do you make of that?
I don’t understand that. Because what do you mean by god? If you mean you’re trying to understand the order of the universe then that’s fine and if you need to call it god that’s fine but this reliance on the fact that we have to somehow talk in some secret language, which has words like god, is something I don’t understand. Clearly scientists are trying to understand about beauty wonder and the order of the universe. For some people that’s god but putting things in that way which is ambiguous and also emotionally charged seems to me to be counterproductive.
Let’s turn to the future for a moment; I’m interested in what you’ve said about the possibility of building quantum mechanical computers in the future and how the evolution of technology will bring us to an advanced level of humanity. Your friend Frank Wilczek said that what really interests him is that computers will do physics very differently to how we do physics.
I agree with Frank. There’s a lot of fear about the rise of artificial intelligence, much of it misplaced. I think it provides incredible opportunities to enhance what we can do and also learn more about ourselves. It’s quite possible that computers will be able to understand the universe much better than we can. Not just be programmed to answer our questions but come up with much better questions than we can ourselves.
So you don’t agree with Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about the imminent dangers of artificial intelligence?
I think there are things to worry about, especially in the military. they tend to over rely on technology without necessarily being skeptical about what it can do and the police do that too. For example the use of lie detectors, which are known not to work, is just ridiculous in modern times. So I worry about people relying on artificial intelligence more than they should especially in military applications. But for the most part artificial intelligence will be a great help to humanity. We have to be wary but I’m more excited by the possibilities than afraid of the dangers. We certainly need to think about what the possible issues are so that we can anticipate them and not fall prey to them.
So what are you fearful of in your line of work?
I’m fearful that the enlightenment that began four centuries ago will end. That fear and superstition and hatred and ideology and xenophobia will take over and lead to ignorance and injustice. That’s what I’m afraid of if anything and that’s why I work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.
So basically keeping the status quo?
No, improving the status quo. I want to make the world better so that everyone has more of an appreciation and less fear of the universe and more willingness to work with it to make lives better for everyone. So no, the status quo is not enough, though I certainly don’t want it to get worse.
To lighten the tone slightly, when someone like Miley Cyrus retweets you, you enter a whole new realm of public consciousness. What do you make of that?
I’m honoured. I feel lucky to have had an impact that bridges the gap between science and popular culture and I spend more and more time trying to have that impact because it’s very important. So I was very pleased and surprised by that and I’m very pleased to be working beyond books, making a movie, getting involved in a number of things that try to reach out into the world of popular culture. I’m involved in some more movie projects, some of them fictional. There’s a new Werner Hertzog film which I’m acting in. But there are other ways we’re trying to reach out. I’m always surprised when it happens but fortunate that I have the opportunity to have that impact. I stop asking whether i deserve it. I just try to think that I’m fortunate to have it and as Spiderman said, with great power comes great responsibility.
Finally, I have to ask you this. Is it true Richard Feynman taught you how to dance?
Oh my goodness you’ve done your research. [laughing] You know that was quite important. Going out onto the dance floor as a young man is more terrifying than many other things. And it’s also representative of other things, of both seeking adventure and not being afraid of what other people think. Those are things that guided him and I use to guide myself now. So the answer is yes he did. He taught me to let go and be free and do what I want to do. I try to have that as a guide in whatever I do which is why I’m trying to do some things that are not necessarily traditional. Right now the movie making is one example which should be fun. I’m doing another big movie in a year or so I think.