This weekend i had the privilege to attend a lecture by renowned cosmologist Lawrence Krauss.
After briskly re-reading his most recent book, A Universe from Nothing, and coincidentally finding some debate-stirring news from University College London, (where Krauss apparently entered a gender-segregated debate about atheism vs. islam with an islamic organization) i was armed for an exciting event in my home country, Sweden.
I won’t try to address all the interesting concepts, empirical findings and their implications, presented in both LK’s book and his talks in this post. That would be both presumptuous and redundant, since i am neither in the position to educate nor any better at explaining things than has already been done.
Instead, this post merely reflects my own view of the event, hosted by Kungliga Vetenskaps akademin, and the thoughts it spurred in my generally apathetic mind. As opposed to reading popular science literature in general, it is a different thing entirely to see the author in person, with all the charisma and ability to amuse and provoke a crowd. It would be unfair of me to call Krauss arrogant or obnoxious, but his words were indeed provocative, as was likely the intention. It made me think that a communicator of science doesn’t necessarily have to be a good teacher, but more of a crowd-pleasing and articulate comedian, with a knack for explaining the universe.
The question still remains though, whether the explanation given by Krauss was sufficient. As some of the critics have pointed out, it lacked a proper definition of ”nothing”, and the hype surrounding the book placed it in the light of false advertising. Although criticism is important, it is often prone to being reiterated to the point where the person being criticized develops automatic replies. I’m afraid this is what’s happening in regards to Krauss, and it’s unfortunate, since it reinforces conclusions already arrived at, both by speakers and listeners, and their opinions are likely to remain as perceived truths without further critical scrutiny.
On an even more pessimistic note, the two key points to take away from the talk, was the insignificance of mankind, and our miserable future. The reasons being the lack of purpose given by a divine intelligence, that the majority of energy resides in empty space, and the fact, as explained by Hubble’s law, that as the expansion of the universe approaches the speed of light, the possibility to find out about our past diminishes.
Supposedly a humbling notion, the idea of insignificance was already an integral part of my (and assumingly many other’s world view and/or self-perceptions) before attending the event and produced no feeling of enlightenment. There is nothing more self-evident to a depressed individual than the thought that you don’t matter at all, whether rationalized by a scientific world-view, or not.
Despite reading A Universe from Nothing twice, i was still not able to comprehend some of the leaps during the talk, as we journeyed through schematic drawings of galaxies moving apart, the geometry of our universe, dark matter, and ultimately, the energy of empty space. A fascinating animation depicting the inside of a proton still puzzles me, and remains an abstraction yet beyond the experimental reach of particle physics (although please correct me if this turns out wrong). Same goes for the proposition of multiverses, spontaneously created from quantum fluctuations in the vacuum of empty space. But an even more exciting and intimidating notion was that not only matter and space can arise from ”nothing”, but also that the laws of physics themselves may be accidental. How this squares with the epistemological question of the ability of science to answer ‘how’-questions about the origin of the universe, remains a mystery to me, and a question i would’ve liked to ask Krauss himself.
Posterior to the talk, was a panel discussion with a few swedish academics, including a philosopher, a theologian, an astronomer and a science journalist. Needless to say, the debate became quite intense. Most of the issues raised were of an epistemological nature, with Krauss often alluding to the futility of academic philosophy. Yet the philosopher did seem to get one of her points across; that philosophical thinking is applied by scientists as well, and can be very useful for asking critical questions.
The astronomer present, Bengt Gustafsson, seemed bit more skeptical based on experience with observations not agreeing with most theoretical predictions in the field, a very pragmatic reflection. And also the depiction seen in Krauss’s book, of the romantic ideal of individual scientists making breakthroughs with their heroic discoveries. In reality, however, science is a collaborative enterprise and the contributions are mostly made by groups of people (leading to the suggestion by Gustavsson of a Nobel prize for research groups).
That said, not many individuals were mentioned in Krauss’s talk, among them were mainly Einstein and Hubble (although i anticipated a mention of Henrietta Leavitt, who lead Hubble to discover that the universe is expanding by measuring luminosity and periods of variable stars).
After a stimulating evening, a raspberry fudge drink, and whirling peaceful snowflakes, i’ll finish this post with a yawn. There. Good night, whoever and wherever you are.