We’re living in the best of times and the worst of times according to best-selling author and award-winning theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. The best is represented by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has helped reveal the Higgs particle that ties together the standard model of physics. The worst is reflected by the president’s proposed federal budget that could derail physical science research. Krauss spoke about his latest book, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017) last week at Town Hall Seattle. It was an informative and humor-filled lecture.
“This is really humanity at its greatest,” said Krauss of the discoveries at the LHC, which represent the work of thousands of scientists from all over the world. Krause’s talk was a walk through the history of discovery in physics, going all the way back to Plato and along the way bumping into Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Fermi, Feynman, and more before arriving at quantum mechanics, the standard model, and the Higgs field.
“The real world is so different than the illusion that we see,” Krauss said. “The world of our experience is an illusion, and it’s an amazing story how we, over centuries, have been able to cut through that illusion to see reality underneath.”
We’ll leave the full tour of advances in physics to your reading of the book and, for this article, focus on Krauss’s take on the problems and challenges facing science today. He feels that much of the current mistrust of science stems from a common misconception that tomorrow’s science will make today’s obsolete, and that therefore scientific facts are little more than a subjective fad. Krauss said that is completely wrong.
Truth is eternal
“What is true today—and by true in science we mean what has satisfied the test of experiment today—will always be true,” he said. “Newton’s laws may have been supplanted at the extremes of scale by general relativity or quantum mechanics, but to describe baseballs or cannonballs or even rocket ships, they’re as true today as they were then, and whatever new physics we discover in quantum gravity or whatever, it’s not going to change. At the scale of humans, it’s got to revert to Newton’s laws. A million years from now, whatever we learn in science, if I let a ball go it’s going to fall as described by Newton’s laws.”
Krauss also let us in on what he jokingly referred to as a well-kept secret.
“Scientists are human,” he said. “That means they have prejudices and biases and pigheadedness, and that’s fine. What’s really neat is that science forces them in the right direction, kicking and screaming. The individual scientists are full of nonsense, but the scientific process protects us from that nonsense.”
Searching for a better toaster
Science is almost inextricably tied to technology, and Krauss frets that this causes people to wonder what new discoveries are “good for.”
“People don’t ask that for Mozart concertos or Picasso paintings or Shakespeare plays,” Krauss noted, “but it’s all the same thing. It’s what makes humanity worth living for. The fundamental importance of science, to me, is not the technology, but the fact that it forces us to confront reality and change our picture of our place in the cosmos. That’s what good literature, good music, good art do. That’s what the process of learning and growing as a society is all about.”
End of story?
The “So Far” in the title of the book is a reference to the notion that the story of discovery will continue to get more amazing if we keep asking questions. But Krauss is worried that we may not be able to do so. He noted that the president’s proposed federal budget would cut the Department of Energy—the primary funder of research in the physical sciences—by 20 percent, and eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museums and Libraries. That would save around $1.82 billion, while Krauss notes that the same budget would provide $2 billion to start building a wall between the United States and Mexico.
“To protect us against these unimaginable horrors, we’re willing to cut these things in our society that are so central,” Krauss observed. “We are in the process of getting rid of what is important for making the nation worth defending.”
“Art, literature, music and science are part of the greatest story ever told, and when we give that up in the name of defense, what are we really killing?” he asked.
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