Lawrence Krauss on life, the universe and the nuclear threat

by Rebecca Priestley / 12 May, 2017
Lawrence Krauss. Photo/Alamy

Lawrence Krauss. Photo/Alamy

After a quarter of a century of optimism, the Doomsday Clock is now the closest it has been to midnight since 1953, because, its chairman says, the world has become a more unstable place.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock were set at a terrifying three minutes to midnight when I was in high school in 1984. The clock, which the US-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists uses to reflect existential threats to humanity, was acknowledging US plans for a space-based anti-ballistic missile programme and the failure of arms control negotiations between the US and USSR.

Throughout the 1980s, surveys of New Zealanders showed that most of us believed nuclear war was inevitable. But in 1991, things started looking up for humanity. With the Cold War over and the Americans and Soviets making cuts to their nuclear arsenals, the Doomsday Clock’s hands were pushed back to 17 minutes to midnight, the most optimistic setting since the clock was established in 1947.

But in January this year, the hands moved forward to two minutes and thirty seconds to midnight – the closest to midnight it’s been since 1953, when the two superpowers were developing and testing thermonuclear weapons.

In announcing the 2017 decision, the Bulletin said that during 2016, the global security landscape darkened “as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change”. Other threats they noted included strident nationalism, fake news and the potential for cyberwarfare and catastrophic misuse of new technologies such as the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Donald Trump, at the time President-elect of the US, got a special mention for his “disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons” and his “disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change”.

“They are always difficult decisions,” says the chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors, Lawrence Krauss, “but a consensus is eventually reached.” The absolute value of the clock, he says, is not as important as the direction it goes. “It’s hard to scientifically argue that it’s more dangerous or less dangerous now than it was in 1952 or whenever, but the direction it goes should send a message to the world”: that it is a more unstable and dangerous place than it was a year ago.

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Tick tock

Speaking from his office in Arizona, Krauss says what’s making the world more unstable and dangerous is, first, the election of a US president who “had made incredibly provocative comments about nuclear weapons and their use … which went against the whole tide of nuclear security over the past 30-40 years”. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin “had been speaking in a rather sabre-rattling way”, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had started the year by declaring he would soon test a missile with an intercontinental range.

Another urgent issue was climate change and the Bulletin was responding to the “fact that the governing party of one of the most powerful countries in the world overtly lies about climate change and doesn’t accept the scientific results and therefore is an obstacle to progress on an issue that is of global importance”.

Trump’s election can be seen in part as a failure of science and the tendency to teach and communicate science as if it was a collection of facts rather than a process for deriving facts, says Krauss. When science is just “a bunch of facts, then people can have alternative facts”. Instead, science should be taught as sceptical enquiry that relies on empirical evidence testing – “these are the tools we should be teaching”.

This is where history of science education and books such as Krauss’s are key to understanding science. He has written several popular books on physics, including bestsellers A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing and The Physics of Star Trek.

Kim Jong-un. Photo/Getty Images

The greatest story ever told

At the Auckland Writers Festival this month in a session called “Tick Tock”, Krauss will be talking about the Doomsday Clock and his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far.

In it, he writes about the advances in particle physics that he and other theoretical physicists use not to develop bombs but to tell the story of the universe. Krauss is a professor at Arizona State University and founder and director of the university’s Origins Project, which is concerned with “issues ranging from the origin of the universe to the origins of life, modern humans, consciousness, culture, complex systems and technology”.

The book is a mixture of the history of science – it tells stories of exploration of the fundamental nature of reality, from Galileo and our own Ernest Rutherford to the Large Hadron Collider – and an extended physics lesson, complete with instructional diagrams. Krauss manages to make some very complex science make pretty good sense – if you want to know how to tell your muons from your bosons, and neutrons from neutrinos, then this is for you.

The “So Far” is a key part of the title. The story of physics revealed in the book is an “amazing intellectual journey with red herrings and dead ends”. As he points out in the book, “each hidden connection in nature revealed by science since the time of Galileo has led physics in new and unexpected directions”.

Whereas many other physics books have focused on either the advances in physics in the first two decades of the 20th century or the very recent history of, for example, the discovery of the Higgs boson, Krauss has a significant focus on 1954 to 1974, a tumultuous period when we went “from chaos to order, from confusion to confidence and from ugliness to beauty”.

The Large Hadron Collider. Photo/Getty Images

During this time, scientists worked to make sense of the proliferation of new elementary particles that had been discovered and to understand the relationships between electromagnetism, gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

When Krauss entered graduate school in the mid-1970s, it was “a time of great hubris and chutzpah … people assumed that within a decade we’d have a Grand Unified Theory, that we’d have unification of all the forces”. At the same time, physicists were beginning to realise that fundamental microphysical theories could be used to address questions of the origin of the universe and vice versa.

With new telescopes and other tools being developed to explore the universe, the “symbiotic relationship between particle physics and cosmology really began to blossom. And so it was a time of great hope and expectation, and in some sense, the remaining decades of the 20th century were a disappointment, because we were expecting great things.”

One of Krauss’s most significant contributions to the field was his prediction of the existence of dark energy – a theory that was proved correct by observations of supernovae in the 1990s. Although scientific research has always been Krauss’s main career focus, he has been equally committed to the public understanding of science. “I generally feel irresponsible if I’m not talking about science and I feel like a fraud if I’m not doing science.”

While in Auckland, Krauss plans to meet not with a fellow physicist but with a historian – his old high-school history teacher, Lew Bobb, who is now in his nineties and lives in Whangarei. “He was the most influential teacher I ever had,” says Krauss, crediting Bobb with teaching him how to write. “Obviously, I love physics and science, but the demands that he placed on me and the level of scholarship he required were seminal in my life.”

Global danger looms

Krauss is visiting New Zealand for just a brief time, but he has a big message for the Auckland Writers Festival audience. In reference to the recent Doomsday Clock decision, Krauss notes that “one of the main messages was that you can’t rely on your leaders – you have to do it yourself. And that’s a really important message. We want to embolden and energise the public to act on these issues, not just nuclear weapons but climate change.”

The 2017 statement of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts it succinctly. At the end of its eight-page statement it says: “It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far: Why Are We Here?, by Lawrence M Krauss (Simon & Schuster, $37.87)

Tick Tock, Auckland Writers Festival, May 18, 5-6pm

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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