Friday, September 19, 2014

A Star in the Making

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ASU’s “Woody Allen of cosmology” finds joy in a universe without meaning.

Lawrence Krauss is a big believer in nothing. The universe started from nothing, he believes, and it will end that way, too.

The celebrated ASU scientist and professor also believes that nothing gets a bad rap. We tend to fear it, and condition our kids to reject it. “We beat it out of them, but children are natural scientists,” says the author of the New York Times bestseller The Physics of Star Trek. “How the universe began, where did we come from, where are we going – these are the questions that everyone [starts out] asking themselves.”


As a theoretical physicist, and a rising media star, Krauss excels at making cosmic inquiry fun for the whole family – assuming the whole family has at least a layman’s grasp of physics. The MIT-educated lecturer’s fifth-floor ASU office bears testament to his Carl Sagan-like knack for sticky pop-science. Next to a wall cluttered with honors gleaned from all three major U.S. physics societies, one finds sci-fi memorabilia and copies of The Physics of Star Trek. He apologizes to a visitor as he juggles his schedule to squeeze in The Colbert Report and Charlie Rose.

Propelled by brisk sales of his latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, Krauss is achieving the kind of science-guy celebrity orbit reserved for the Sagans and Stephen Hawkings of the world. His lectures have amassed  more than a million hits on You Tube, boosted by a viral shout-out last March from no less  a cosmological authority than Miley Cyrus. Quoting Krauss, the singer-actress sent her religious fans into an online tizzy when she posted the following existential zinger on Twitter: “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. The atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the atoms in your right hand… So, forget Jesus. Stars died so you could live.”

Controversial stuff, and compelling proof of Krauss’ unique crossover appeal. When you get a gold star from both the American Institute of Physics and Miley Cyrus, you’re definitely in your own league.

Krauss, 58, wasn’t always a poster-child for genius-level atheism. He was born in New York City, grew up in Toronto, and raised Jewish as he worked in his parents’ gift shop. He read the Bible and Koran, and demonstrated an advanced aptitude for theological concepts. But the young prodigy grew skeptical in his teens. “I probably wanted a God to exist,” he recalls. “However, the clear fact that not all religions can be correct made it pretty clear that none of them were.” Books by Einstein and George Gamow drew him to science.

After earning his Ph.D. at MIT, Krauss joined the faculty at Harvard, regularly fielding reminders from his mother that it wasn’t too late for med school. (“She’s over it now,” he says.) His academic odyssey took him to Yale, then to Case Western. In 2008, he joined ASU at the behest of university president Michael Crow to lead the Origins Project, a think tank designed to promote research and debate on how life began. A 2009 Origins gathering attracted 6,000 people to hear 100 scientists from around the globe.

Though a respected researcher, Krauss gets palpable pleasure from sharing the wonders of the cosmos with nonscientists. For example, he’s fond of pointing out that everything we can see, touch, or measure makes up only 1 percent of the universe – what Krauss calls “a bit of cosmic pollution in a sea of dark matter and dark energy.” Krauss was among the first in the physics community to propose the existence of dark energy, laying the groundwork for the team that won the 2011 Nobel physics prize for demonstrating that the elusive, undetectable force is the accelerant that causes the expansion of the universe as we know it.

The implications of dark energy play a major role in A Universe from Nothing. Krauss theorizes that our now-crowded universe will become so diffuse in 100 billion years that future astronomers, if there are any, will have no evidence of other galaxies. Pulled ever-farther apart by dark energy, the universe will end as it began – as nothing. “I tell people two things they should remember,” Krauss says. “One, we’re much more insignificant than we thought we were, and two, the future is miserable.”

He suspects extraterrestrials exist, but space is so vast he doubts we’ll ever make contact – a prospect that would have horrified Sagan and certainly makes his fellow Star Trek fans glum. Krauss counsels courage. “Being alone in a vast universe isn’t the end of the world,” he points out. Such one-liners led British author-biologist Richard Dawkins to dub him “the Woody Allen of cosmology.”

Like Dawkins, Krauss is something of a pariah to the hardline creationists, but his ideas also put him at odds with the 51 percent of scientists polled in 2009 who believe in God or a higher power. Krauss, who calls himself an “anti-theist” rather than atheist, admits: “I can’t argue with certainty that there’s no God. All I can say is that I wouldn’t want to live in a universe with one. I much prefer a universe without one. I find it much more liberating and exciting and spiritually uplifting.”

Such staunch non-theist thinking is bound to stir debate, even in scientific circles. Brian Greene of Columbia takes a different tone than Krauss, though he respects him as a fellow cosmologist. Author of the book and PBS miniseries The Elegant Universe, Greene agrees with Krauss on the separation of physics and theology, and emphasizes that he too rejects “intelligent design,” but prefers to leave the God-window open.

“For me as a physicist, I look out at the universe and I see pattern, I see order,” Greene says. “I see a wondrous harmony of ideas, from relativity to quantum mechanics and cosmology to thermodynamics. And some people, when they speak of God, really are speaking of an order and a wonder and a harmony. And to me, when there’s an alignment of those perspectives, that’s fine.”

Krauss’s interrogation of the universe is far from over. His research targets include dark energy, “the biggest mystery in physics.” He is also drawn to the physics of information, and what gravity waves might reveal about the early universe. For Krauss, the scope and complexity of such mysteries is all the spirituality he needs.

“We have to take joy from the fact that we have this brief moment. Let’s make the most of it as a species,” he says. “We’re very, very lucky in so many ways. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, it’s a shame,’ we should say, ‘Great, let’s enjoy it.’ And that’s my point.”

Which is a long way from nothing.

 

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