Lawrence M. Krauss – The Fear of Physics

October 10, 2008

Lawrence M. Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the new Origins Initiative at Arizona State University. He is an internationally famous theoretical physicist who focuses on the early universe, the nature of dark matter, general relativity and neutrino astrophysics. He has investigated questions ranging from the nature of exploding stars to issues of the origin of all mass in the universe. He is the author of seven best-selling books, including the international bestseller, The Physics of Star Trek and Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions from Plato to String Theory and Beyond. Dr. Krauss is one of North America’s leading activists for the public understanding of science and has been particularly involved in issues at the intersection of science and society, leading efforts by scientists to defend the teaching of science in public schools, and he has been a strong proponent of scientific integrity in government. His essay in the New York Times about evolution and Intelligent Design in May 2005 helped spur a controversy that ultimately caused the Catholic Church to refine its position on Darwinian evolution. Most recently he has led the call for a Presidential Debate on Science and Technology as a member of the steering committee for

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Lawrence Krauss explores the fear of physics, noting that some of it stems from the fact that physics contradicts basic beliefs that many people have about their place in the universe. He also addresses how others are afraid of physics because of its potential to destroy civilization, such as with atomic and nuclear weapons, and the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. He explains some of the science behind the LHC. And he talks about the misuse of quantum physics in the New Age movement, and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and the documentary What The Bleep Do We Know.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

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I’m happy to have Lawrence M. Krauss back on point of inquiry. He’s a cosmologist and foundation professor in the School of Earth and space exploration and director of the exciting New Origins Initiative at Arizona State University. He’s an internationally known theoretical physicist with many research interests, including the intersection between elementary particle physics and cosmology, where his studies include the early universe, the nature of dark matter, general relativity and neutrino astrophysics, whatever that is. He’s investigated questions ranging from the nature of exploding stars to issues of the origin of all mass in the universe. He’s the author of seven popular books, including the international bestseller The Physics of Star Trek. The Award Winning Atom and his most recent book, Hiding in the Mirror The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions From Plato to String Theory and Beyond. He’s also a regular radio commentator on NPR and an essayist for newspapers such as The New York Times and New Scientist magazine. He’s one of North America’s leading activists for the public understanding of science and has been particularly active in issues of science and society. He’s led efforts by scientists to defend the teaching of science in public schools, and he’s been a strong defender of scientific integrity in government. His essay in The New York Times about evolution and intelligent design in May 2005 helped spur a big controversy that ultimately caused the Catholic Church to refine its position on evolution. Most recently, he’s led the call for a presidential debate on science and technology. As a member of the Steering Committee for Science Debate 2008, dawg. 

Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Professor Lawrence Krauss. Hi. It’s nice to be back. 

Since you were last on the show, Professor, you have moved as one of the world’s leading theoretical physicist. Your work deals with really the big questions, the biggest questions of all. Where do we come from, where we’re going? And I mean that kind of in the cosmic sense right now. Now, you’ve moved to the University of Arizona to head up the work being done there on the universe’s origins. 

I like to direct an exciting new initiative which will become an institute here, a university wide initiative on origins in all fence’s, everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of the solar system, the origins of life itself and human origins and human evolution. The origins of culture and consciousness. To connect a wide variety of disciplines and build on a great number of strengths here, both as a research institute and also as an outreach program to address these important issues, which of course interest the public in many ways and also are the source of a great deal of controversy among the public. 

The work that you’re doing, especially as broad as it is, it challenges the basic and the most comforting views that most people have about origins, not just the origins of the universe, but all the other topics you mentioned. Does that make you want to tread lightly when it comes to talking about your work? What I’m getting at is the science that you’re doing suggests that most people are plumb wrong when it comes to their understanding of origins. 

I guess it suggests that. But that’s the great thing about science had convinced us that most of our intuitive feelings about the universe may have been wrong. And it’s very awakening and in some sense the basis of science. Keep an open mind to discover your basic convictions were ultimately wrong and to be forced to reassess them is really enriching in a way. And so I guess the things we’re talking about are going to face what many people think to be true about the origin of the universe. But I have to say also that we scientists are surprised all the time. I mean, we now have a picture of the universe that’s completely different than it was a decade ago. And so many of the things that I thought were true a decade ago are often wrong. But if you’re talking about the fact that a lot of people believe, for example, the Earth is 10000 years old, whereas it isn’t and and that humans were created their present form, whereas they’re not. Those things do fly in the face of a lot of public opinion. And what I’d like to try and do with that, with the institute and what I do is rather than sort of attack people with those notions, is to explain to them why we actually think that and how the new knowledge doesn’t necessarily have to threaten their beliefs about themselves. 

I invited you on the show today to talk about the fear of physics. And one reason people are afraid of physics is what you just mentioned. You know, the implications of physics juts up against their deeply held beliefs. So that’s one kind of fear, another kind of fear, kind of in the superficial sense as the kind of fear that I had when I was in high school right before physics exams. Right. You look at segments of our society, people are afraid of physics, not just because of those kinds of reasons that I just mentioned, but because of kind of physics will destroy us type reasons. 

Well, ever since this is probably developed, the atomic weapons physics says that. 

Right. I’m I’m reminded of Oppenheimer’s line after the atomic bomb went off that, you know, when he was he’s quoting the Bhagavad Gita. You know, we have become destroyers of worlds. That’s a reason to fear physics. 

Yeah, absolutely. In a sense, we suddenly had this power by regretting his weapons of mass destruction. And and that certainly gave physicists a certain status, but also gave the public a certain queasiness about the nature of physics. 

And some segments of the public have the same queasiness these days about. Well, let’s talk about the Large Hadron Collider. Let’s start there. 

Yeah, you’re right. It’s a part of the news a lot because of this notion that some people have propagated that somehow that Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole that would eat up the earth and. Destroy the world. And that went around the world in terms of media. And of course, it’s nonsense. But why was one of the good things? Is it now many people know what the Large Hadron Collider is. Whereas otherwise they might not have known it. So I suppose sometimes bad science is useful, at least in learning keeps distance of this new and what is four fifths. One of the most exciting new windows on the universe that’s come up in the last generation. By the way, it’s not going to create a black hole. It’s going to destroy the world. And one of the ways we know that is that while this collider, which will prove collisions between elementary particles that are more energetic than have ever been produced by humanity in our existence, nature actually produces those kind of collisions all the time, every single day. Cosmic rays are coming down and hitting the earth with more energy than is produced in the Large Hadron Collider. And the same with the moon and the fact the moon and the earth are both been around for about four and a half billion years and seems to have survived, suggests that we don’t have too much to worry about in creating such collisions. 

So a little more background about the Large Hadron Collider. You said it’s elementary particles being shot at each other. First off, what’s the hadron? And why do scientists want to make them collide? 

OK, you know, that’s great. We should step back here and talk a little about the Large Hadron Collider. First of all, Hadron is basically a fancy way of talking about protons. Protons are the stuff that make up your body. Protons and neutrons make up the nuclei of all atoms in your body, and protons are charged particles and they can be accelerated in electromagnetic fields. And the Large Hadron Collider, that is an amazing machine. It’s a tunnel that’s 26 kilometers around underneath the farmlands of Switzerland and France and the mountains in that region of the border of those two. And protons are accelerating in one direction at the very high energy and in another direction up the very high energy and then they’re collided. Now, the question is, why do we do that? And then the joy of colliding particles. And the answer is that in order to understand the fundamental structure matter, to probe smaller and smaller, distant scales, to understand what are the forces that make the universe answer, such questions as why we have math, why elementary particles have mass and such questions as why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter. In order to explore very small scales, we have to accelerate particles to very, very high energy so they can collide together. And the particles that make up protons called quarks can get so close. So that the interactions between those quarks can be felt in a way that can be detected by these large detectors. This is like the Gothic cathedral, the 21st century. This machine is amazing. It’s built by thousands of physicists from hundreds of countries speaking dozens of languages. And it all works. It’s except, of course, that broke down recently. 

It’ll take a few months to fix it. That’s not surprising. It’s the most complex machine that’s ever been built. And the point is that this will illuminate questions that physicists have been asking about the fundamental structure of matter that we haven’t been able to answer for 30 years. 

And moreover, it will also answer questions. We think about the origin of the universe. Because the last time particles were regularly colliding with this kind of energy was in the first millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. And so there’s all sorts of cosmic questions, as well as fundamental questions about why we’re here, that we hope that this machine will answer. 

Well, I can tell you’re excited. The sound of your voice, your tails wagging. You’re like a kid in a candy store. Tell me what the God particle is, the Higgs boson. Why do they think they might uncover that in this collider? 

Well, the Higgs boson is part of what’s called the standard model of elementary particle physics. And and the point is that this very fundamental question, which seems so fundamentally almost don’t ever ask it, which is why particles have mass and why are protons heavier than electrons? 

And so why is there math in the universe is the question that we really are just beginning to grapple with. And and in what’s called the standard model of elementary particle physics, it turns out that elementary particles have mass largely by accident. It’s like having a car. If if you get a flat tire or or you run in a cafe, you can push your car off the highway with enough force. You can gradually get going. But if you run into the mud, of course, the car gets stuck and as much as you push it, it won’t move anymore. The car suddenly act like it’s heavier and we end. The current picture of elementary particle physics is that basically drug space? There’s this field called the Higgs field and the elementary particles, the particles that make you and I up as we move through this background, they kind of get stuck like common mode and certain particles have stronger interactions with that Higgs field and other ones have less strong interactions. The ones that have stronger interactions, like they’re heavier, the ones that have less strong interactions, act like they’re lighter. And so particles behave like they have math just because of the existence of this background field. Well, it all sounds wonderful, but. It’s there. It turns out we have to be able to see if that background field exists. And one way to do it is to smash particles together with enough energy to fight the field, enough to, in fact, create real particles called Higgs particles, which we would then see decay. So if we can create these particles at the Large Hadron Collider would tell us that ideas about why elementary particles have mass are correct. And they say this is a central part of what’s called the standard model of elementary particle physics, which has been built up over 40 years and has thus far explained every bit of experimental data that we have. It’s one of the best scientific theories in existence. In fact, the Nobel Prize this week that just came out today, as we’re speaking, was again for certain theoretical components that helped bring the standard model together. And in fact, is that the Nobel Prize went for something called spontaneous symmetry breaking, which is just a fancy way of talking about the effect of this Higgs field. So these are some of the most exciting scientific ideas theorists have developed. But we’re hungering for physics as an empirical science. We just thinking about the world is not enough. We want to know if it’s really that way. And we want to know if our fundamental ideas are, in fact, correct. And the way to do it is to experiment with that fact. One of the most exciting possibilities might be that we don’t see the Higgs at the Large Hadron Collider. Now, that would be disappointing in some sense, but it would tell us that some aspect of these fundamental ideas are wrong. And that’s even more exciting if you’re a theoretical physicist, because being wrong is more exciting than being right in a sense, because it means there’s a lot more to learn about the universe. Jim Underdown. 

Before we move on, just tell me why they call it the God particle. 

Well, it’s it was called the God particle by one person, by the physics, namely, Letterman is a friend of mine and a Nobel laureate who wrote a book called The God Particle. And he was really talking about the search for for the Higgs. And I suppose he called it the God particle, because the Higgs is sort of the hidden component of the standard model that’s behind everything we observe. And I guess from his point of view, that’s kind of like some people’s notions of God. I don’t think it was a good use of the term. Certainly in physics, we never called the God particle, let me tell you. 

I see. So there was a fear in the Large Hadron Collider destroying the world. There were lawsuits, lots of grassroots activism. But you say there’s little danger in that actual happening. 

Yes. You don’t have to worry about that. And the reason is that while the Large Hadron Collider is the highest energy machine that humans have ever created to produce collisions between elementary particles, nature, of course, has far greater resources at her disposal. And every second of every day, cosmic rays are bombarding the earth from the fines of the universe with energy is far greater than we are producing at the Large Hadron Collider. And they’re colliding with nuclei here on Earth and that they don’t collide that often. High energies maybe once every square kilometer per year. But nevertheless, they’ve been bombarding the earth and the moon with that kind of energy. And if if some catastrophic event were going to happen at such energies, then the Earth and Moon, which which have both been here for 4.5 billion years, would no longer be here. 

And since we’re here, we have pretty good confidence that we shouldn’t have to worry about the potential for destroying the world, as is one of the reasons we’ve talked about the sphere of physics. But some people take their fear of physics or their fear of the implications of physics. They rework it. I mean, they kind of make physics turn into something that it’s not. I’m talking about the growing belief in quantum physics and facts about the universe that physicists like yourself are uncovering the belief that your work is actually proving the existence of spiritual realms. There are people like Rhonda Byrne, the author of the secret movies, like What the Bleep Do They Know? They claim that there is now scientific proof coming out of quantum physics that connects, you know, the physical world with the spiritual world. 

Yeah, it’s an unfortunate abuse of physics that’s happened over the years where people like quantum mechanics from Ticker’s lent itself to that the notions of quantum mechanics are so wild that some people have used them to suggest that physics underlies all of this weird spiritual New Age philosophy. And it doesn’t know what the bleep, you know, is just nonsense. Quantum mechanics is based on the notion that at a fundamental level, the observers can affect experiments. Observations are an essential part of the results that at some level the results of physics can only predict probabilistically. We don’t know what the result of an experiment be. We can only predict the probabilities. That will be one of several different observations and we can break those probabilities. Exactly. But in each experiment, you can’t say in advance specifically what will happen. And that element of choice has led people to think, oh, maybe as what bleep, you know, basically argues, oh, well, by thinking about the universe, you can change it. And if you want something, it will happen. And the nonsensical notion of the book, the secret that somehow there’s some law of attraction which is just has nothing to do with it. People have to use those. Words to sound scientific, to justify in their new age philosophy. It’s not new to this year or this decade. People have done it for a long time. And unfortunately, the ideas are so fascinating that people adopt them and use them for whatever idea they’re trying to sell at that moment. And it is unfortunate that people feel the real world somehow doesn’t satisfy them and they have to create these alternate realities. And the reason that’s unfortunate is that the real world is actually more fascinating than any of these these vague new age notions that people are putting up. The real world is far more interesting and exotic, and that’s why I try and explain it. But the difference is you have to think about a little bit and learn just enough science to know what’s real and what isn’t. And I think that people are fascinated at the one hand by the results of physics and quantum physics, and they want to adopt these notions. But the same time, they’re kind of afraid of of really trying to understand it. And they’d rather adopt the verbiage without without the real concepts. And so you see an incredible abuse of physics and in that realm. I mean, physics and empirical science is based on predicting the results of experiments and then seeing if you’re right or not. The metaphysics is is completely unrelated to it. And unfortunately for many people, the metaphysics is far more interesting than the physics, at least they perceive it to be. 

So there’s no evidence that the universe is constructed of thought or like is suggested in the secret. I think in some sense more reprehensible than doctrines of fundamentalist monotheisms that that the life that you have is a result of of your thoughts kind of manifesting your reality in the universe. In other words, the homeless person deserves to be homeless. The rich robber baron deserves to be a rich robber baron. 

You’re actually right that that is a complete misrepresentation of science then and an unfortunate one. The physics is based on the fact that there is an objective reality out there. We’re probing it with our experiments and our observations. But but the reality exists independent of that. And the notion that because you want something that will happen is just just not a part of physics. And it is one of the worst abuses of physics I can think about. And it happens a lot. And it’s unfortunate. The suggestion that you create your reality is a misrepresentation of quantum mechanics. Of course, when we observe the universe, we are impacting on the nature of the underlying reality. But the reality exists. And at a human level, the laws of quantum mechanics just seem so strange because particularly they really manifest themselves at the subatomic level, on the atomic level and at our level. We live in a classical universe. I can throw a ball against the wall a million times and whether I will it to go through the wall or not, I won’t do it. It will bounce off, just like Newton told me 400 years ago. 

So on the one hand, you have people who are out now, anti science, who reject your kind of physics because it tells them things about the universe they don’t want to hear, like how all the universes are or how I got here. Non supernaturally, we think. On the other hand, you have these people we were just talking about who take theoretical physics and run with it. They kind of make a religion out of it. Is the solution to these two extremes just to teach everybody theoretical physics? That seems kind of unworkable? 

No, of course, we can expect there won’t be a theoretical physicist and I don’t propose that. But what we can try and teach people is the process of science, what it’s based on so that people can have enough of a filter to tell the nonsense from the sense let’s tell the fact that science is an empirical discipline based on analyzing data, having theories, analyzing data, seeing if it’s wrong, and knowing just enough to be able to, as I say, have the kind of educated energy so we can distinguish if someone tells of the Holocaust never happened, we know it’s nonsense. And so it’s the process of science being skeptical and questioning and asking yourself, does this idea really is it really consistent with what I know to be true about the world? It’s basically using the mantra that that I learned from the publisher of The New York Times who said, I like to keep an open mind, but not open my brain. Follow Jim Underdown. And that’s basically the thing that I really have. If there’s one thing I want to get across to people is the question and say, is this consistent with what I know to be true about the world? And many people, from their experience, if you know enough that they can realize that some of these claims are ultimately ridiculous. So I think it’s more explain the process of science and that goes to all levels all the way up to the highest levels of government. If we can convince the government and then ministration to just basic public policy decisions, unsound empirical evidence, rather than on apriori belief, that would be important. And of course, we’ve got in our presidential election right now, we’ve got a very scary situation where at least one of the candidates, the vice presidential candidate, clearly can’t distinguish belief from reality. 

Before we finish up, I just want to let our listeners know that you will be. Appearing at the kickoff event of the new Center for Inquiry Community there in Portland, Oregon. This next Tuesday, October 14th, a talk entitled Science, Non Science and Nonsense From the Classroom to the Capitol. 

Professor Lawrence Krauss, thank you so much for joining me again on Point of Inquiry. Thanks a lot for having me back again. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. 

Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. Production assistance was provided by Lauren. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.