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Physicist Lawrence Krauss on the greatest scientific story ever told

“The reality beneath is much grander and more mysterious than we ever imagined."

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 9: The Hayden Planetarium exhibition of Department of Astrophysics.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Lawrence Krauss wants you to see the poetry in the universe.

A theoretical physicist, Krauss proclaimed in a recent talk: "Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded, and the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust."

Krauss, who is the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, has emerged in recent years as one of the leading advocates for science and reason in public life. As a scientist, he has produced groundbreaking work on early cosmology and the physics of exploding stars.

He's also a part-time columnist for the New Yorker and the author of several popular books, including The Physics of Star Trek and Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth. His lectures, many of which are posted on YouTube, are widely watched.

In this interview, I talk to Krauss about his latest book, The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s a compressed history of physics — from the Big Bang to Newton to Galileo to Einstein and beyond — written in the style and spirit of Krauss’s previous works: fun, accessible, richly detailed, and expansive. The greatest story, as he explains below, “is the intellectual journey we've taken to understand the amazing universe we live in.”

Here, I ask Krauss about the tension between religion and science, whether life itself has any discernible purpose, and why he’s so worried about “alternative facts.” He also weighs in on the Trump administration’s “war on science,” which he calls a “tragedy” and a looming disaster for public policy.

Sean Illing

Your new book is an attempt to take a traditionally religious theme and reimagine it in scientific terms. So what’s the greatest scientific story ever told?

Lawrence Krauss

Well, the greatest story ever told is the intellectual journey we've taken to understand the amazing universe we live in, and see that it's an illusion in a sense. The reality beneath is much grander and more mysterious than we ever imagined. The greatest story is being told by nature, not by us. We've been dragged kicking and screaming, clinging to our illusions and grasping for truth, but nature is there to be seen and admired and studied, and the story it tells is far greater than any mythologies invented by human beings.

Sean Illing

Nature is magnificent but also conspicuously silent in the face of human needs. Is that also part of the story?

Lawrence Krauss

Of course. Nature doesn't care about our needs or demands. The earth wasn't created for us, as much as some people find that dismaying. We have this great opportunity, but nothing's been handed to us. The universe is hostile and violent, and it’s amazing that we've survived for as long as we have.

Sean Illing

I find that fact to be life-affirming, but many find it depressing and unbearable.

Lawrence Krauss

Sure, some people find it depressing that we live in a universe that appears to have no purpose. The "Why are we here?" part, which is the subtitle of the book, is really about the fact that the fundamental laws of physics aren't designed for us to exist. We're here by accident, and that could be depressing for some, but I find it enlivening because we're here for a little while, we're lucky to be here, and we should enjoy our experience and make it better for our children.

Sean Illing

You wrote a book with the subtitle Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, which is interesting terrain for a scientist. Is the question “Why is there something rather than nothing” a scientific question or a religious question?

Lawrence Krauss

Well, as I've said before, "Why?" questions are ultimately meaningless, or they're really "How?" questions. In that sense, they're all scientific questions. Religion doesn't explain anything. What could religion say to the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" What insights could any book written by Iron Age peasants who didn't know that the earth orbited the sun offer on this front? "Something" and "nothing" are physical things, and we need science to define what those physical things are. The best religion can do is say that "God did it," which is code for "I don't want to think about it."

Sean Illing

You don’t really believe that the “Why?” questions are meaningless, do you? These are the most existentially significant questions in human life, the questions for which people live and die. I’m not defending religious metaphysics or any particular answer to questions like, “Why are we here?” or “Why is life worth living?” or “Why should we be good?” — but the questions obviously matter, even if the answers are false or contrived.

[Author’s note: You can read my conversation with philosopher Alain de Botton about how these traditionally religious questions can be addressed in a secular context here.]

Lawrence Krauss

I don’t think they are always meaningless, but they have embedded presumptions that often means they are assertions rather than questions — they presume purpose, teleology, and there are many cases where such an assumption is unwarranted. In these cases, the question may be meaningless.

If there is no purpose to the universe, for example, what does the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” mean? I think most of the time what the questioner really means is “How?” — often because they need to know how in order to make sense of their own purpose.

Sean Illing

So the question "Why are we here?" is unanswerable? Life is just a glorious accident.

Lawrence Krauss

That's right. There is no higher reason. Life, so far as we know it, is an accident. Nature wasn't made for us. In our case, the forces of nature we experience are just an accident, because a field froze in the early history of the universe in a certain way and that allowed us to exist, to come into being.

But the fundamental laws are not at all consistent with our existence, and our time here is not guaranteed.

Sean Illing

I agree, but humans will always thirst for something bigger, for something eternal or absolute. We seem unable to live with uncertainty, and so we impose our truths on the world.

Lawrence Krauss

We're living with uncertainty now, whether we acknowledge it or not. The questions are important, and every time we answer a question, another one emerges — that's part of the thrill of science. There will always be questions, always new problems and new frontiers. Every time we learn more about the universe, we find that it's more fascinating than we imagined.

The great thing about science is that we recognize that we don't have all the answers. Religion comes up with the answers before you even ask the questions, whereas science follows the evidence wherever it leads, and it leads to amazing discoveries.

Sean Illing

I’ve always loved scientists like Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, because they talk about science in poetic terms, in a way that goes beyond the mechanics and the numbers.

Lawrence Krauss

I often say that it's kind of unfortunate that science also produces technology. When you look at a Picasso painting, you don't ask, "What good is that?" But when it comes to science, people say, well, that's great that we have a theory about this or that, but will it make me a better toaster? It has to have some kind of utility for a lot people to appreciate it.

But science, like art or literature, also forces us to confront our place in the universe, to ask how we got here and where we're going. And I find that cultural aspect of science most fascinating.

Sean Illing

It’s interesting that you use the word “story” in a scientific context. Science is often seen as sterile or dry, something that explains how things work but doesn’t tell stories in the conventional sense of that word.

Lawrence Krauss

I think it's because we unfortunately teach it that way. Everyone's fascinated by science when they're young. We just beat it out of them with boring pedagogy. Science is full of adventure and uncertainty and discovery and mystery, and we don't teach it that way. This is why I wanted to call this a story. The story of science and nature is an integral part of the human story, and we shouldn't let myths and superstitions usurp the reality that makes our existence so fascinating.

Science is not just a collection of facts; it's a process by which we discover facts, and that's what we should be teaching in school.

Sean Illing

The emphasis on process is important, I think. I’ve always thought of scientific training as a form of intellectual self-defense. It’s a defense against bad reasoning, false claims, and really against bullshit in all its forms.

Lawrence Krauss

Yes! The moral of the story I'm telling is that we cut through the illusion and bullshit that is the surface reality that we see — that's what science does. And this is what we need more of this in this world of “alternative facts” and “post-truth.” We need a population that can discern truth from falsity, bad arguments from good ones. We need citizens to be skeptical, to demand evidence, to look at different sources. This is what science is all about.

Sean Illing

How do you suppose we got to this place as a society, where “alternative facts” and “post-truth” are so pervasive?

Lawrence Krauss

Well, it didn't happen overnight. Part of it is that we don't educate our citizens well. Schools used to be a place where you learned the facts you needed to know in order to become a functioning adult. And we've lost touch with the fact that that's not needed anymore. We need a filter now. We have to teach kids how to ask the right questions. Learning and reciting facts is not sufficient.

The other part of this is the media, which is responsible for much of what's happened. One of the big mistakes that journalists often make, probably because they're trained to think this way, is to assume that there are two sides to every story. But that's not true of empirical reality. Whether it's evolution or climate change, viewers or readers are often presented with the illusion that there are two equally credible sides.

If you do that long enough, the idea of an objective reality becomes impossible.

Sean Illing

Carl Sagan warned decades ago that we live in a society based on science and technology in which most people know nothing about science and technology.

Lawrence Krauss

Well, this is why I write books. I’m an educator and I try to educate as best I can. A scientifically literate populace is a populace that understands the basic features of the world. If you understand how the world works, you’re less likely to be deceived.

Sean Illing

How worried are you about the current administration? In a December New Yorker column, you accused Trump of waging a “war on science.” And last week, as my Vox colleague Matthew Yglesias noted, Trump released his first budget proposal, which prioritizes guns and tax cuts over education, health care, and scientific research.

Lawrence Krauss

I think it's a tragedy, and I fear the worst is yet to come. We have to be on guard. We've now got people running health care and environmental policy who clearly have no interest in reality. And we have a legislature that has no interest in the people they're supposed to represent. They're only interested in power and propaganda.

So we've got all the elements of the worst public policy imaginable, and the only way we'll make it through profitably is if the public ultimately puts pressure on their government, and that only happens if the citizenry recognizes that it's being fed a bunch of myths.

Lawrence Krauss.

Sean Illing

I often wonder why more scientists aren’t willing to get involved in politics. Recently, we’ve seen the scientific community (some of it, at least) protest the Trump administration, but by and large scientists prefer to avoid the fray. When there’s so much at stake, and when scientific research depends so heavily on political support, this is a risky posture, no?

Lawrence Krauss

Well, scientists are doing what they're good at. They're not required to leave the lab. But it's important that some scientists do enter into the political realm. I've actually thought about diving into politics, but I decided I could be more effective doing what I'm doing. It's too constraining, running for office. To be elected, you have to lie consistently, and I think a lot of scientists find that uncomfortable.

People are also afraid of being vilified, which is the price you pay for speaking out. If you're not used to that, it can be very difficult. But, as I tell scientists all the time, there are a lot of ways to get involved that don't involve national exposure. You don't need a giant soapbox to impact your friends, your neighbors, and your local community. You can start small and try to improve the lives of those around you.

I think that’s more than enough.

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