Culture

Physicist Lawrence Krauss On ‘Star Trek’, ‘Interstellar’, And The Origins Of The Universe

"You need to have an open mind for science fiction, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

Whenever someone begins to ask about “the meaning of life, the universe and everything”, the temptation to answer “42” and move on is difficult to quash. It’s easy to lose sight of how big the Big Questions really are.

Which is why someone like Professor Lawrence Krauss is important. In a series of talks he is presenting in Australia next week, capped by an appearance on Q and A, the renowned theoretical physicist, cosmologist and advocate for reason plans to take on “the kind of questions we all ask — like how we got here and are we alone”.

Krauss’s interests and expertise are diverse. In addition to his work in theoretical physics and cosmology (he was a Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State), he is the bestselling author of titles including The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe From Nothing. He’s been nominated for a Grammy for his liner notes for a symphonic Star Trek recording, and appeared alongside Richard Dawkins in the feature-length documentary The Unbelievers, which followed them through a tour of atheist and anti-theist conventions and rallies.

Ahead of his visit to Australia, he sat down with Junkee to discuss his work, his ideas and Intersteller.

On The Need For Scientific Literacy

At the root of all Krauss’s work is a strong focus on scientific education, and a clear desire to bring knowledge and critical thinking to a wider audience. “It’s nice to inspire young people to find the awe and wonder in science,” he says. In order for his work to be as accessible as possible, he asks himself a question before he starts writing: “How did I first learn to understand this?”

“Teaching is seduction …as most things in life are,” he laughs. Many of his lectures are available online – as are many of the articles he’s written – but he has mixed feelings about the role of the internet and YouTube in the way we learn about science. “It’s positive and negative,” Krauss explains. “There is increased access to information now, but it’s hard to filter. People are bombarded by noise and it is hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.”

It’s here that the importance of teaching critical thinking becomes apparent. With information so readily available, and the need for verification removed, it’s up to us to discern which YouTube clip has scientific credibility, and which article was written by someone in a tinfoil hat. “Luckily for me, I had good teachers who encouraged students to think for themselves.”

Of course, there are barriers to advancing scientific literacy: “First of all is fear of science. There are unfortunately teachers who are uncomfortable teaching science,” Krauss says. “Then there are groups that worry that knowledge leads to lack of belief.” He also points to people’s reluctance to let go of long-held views: “Science [often] forces you to confront ideas you hold dear.”

On Science, Religion, And Challenging Belief

Does Krauss believe science and religion to be mutually exclusive? “Religion is a diffuse notion,” he answers, but “organised religion is incompatible with science … In religion they are seeing the answers before the questions. Science can’t disprove god, but it’s not the same god [that organised religions] are talking about.” Still, he says, there is a relationship between the two, “through the questions religion raises and science addresses”.

With his anti-theist stance, and with many of his talks and publications challenging deeply-held notions, Krauss’s ideas haven’t always been welcomed. “I’ve received backlash of course, but less than you’d imagine.” For his most recent book, Universe from Nothing, he received a lot of criticism from philosophers. “The questions science asks are not what they want to ask”.

For The Unbelievers, which tracks Krauss and Richard Dawkins’ presentations at a number of atheist and anti-theist conferences, Krauss was surprised by the positive feedback he got from religious audiences; many viewers who identified as having a religious background said they’d still recommend the film to a friend. Instead of inciting mass outrage, Krauss says, the reviews of The Unbelievers put a surprising and disproportionate focus on the colour of Krauss’s Converse shoes, and the clothes he wore throughout. “I was amazed at how positive the feedback for The Unbelievers was. And a bit disappointed,” he laughs.

On Star Trek, Interstellar And Science In Pop Culture

According to Krauss, the way science is taught in school strips away the natural awe and wonder from the world. “We are all born scientists,” he says, “[but science] is seen as hard or boring … You need to go where people are.”

Science fiction, for instance. Featuring a foreward by Stephen Hawking, The Physics of Star Trek was released in 1995; in it, Krauss explores what is and isn’t possible in the world of the series, and discusses the themes and ideas raised in the show, including the science behind time travel and teleportation. “It began as kind of a joke actually,” he says. His editor’s daughter was a big fan of Star Trek. But after an initially flippant conversation about it, Krauss felt himself taking the idea a bit more seriously:  “I was taking the train back and started thinking about the transporter and whether it could exist. I entered into it with great trepidation – I didn’t want to alienate 20 million Star Trek fans”. Krauss could have written a lot of books like this, but, he says, “I’d made my point”.

Asked if his knowledge of science interferes with his enjoyment of science fiction, Krauss replies: “Only if it’s crappy. The most important part of science fiction is the fiction, and how it allows you to suspend disbelief … You need to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” Blade Runner was good, he says, but Intersteller was bad. Science aside, he felt the film’s plot was nonsensical and uninteresting, and that some of the societal aspects were difficult to believe. Plus there is the whole thing about a handful of NASA scientists somehow managing to create a spacecraft in the middle of nowhere,” he laughs.

Over the past few years there has been an increase in prominence of celebrity scientists, and Krauss can be counted among them. “It isn’t something I sought or strategically planned. One thing builds on another and [your] profile increases,” he says. “There aren’t that many scientists that can speak to journalists — That, and I am extremely good looking and sexy.”

“For better or worse we have a culture of celebrity, which I’m happy to utilise. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to reach out to a wider audience.”

I finish by asking what utopia would look like for Krauss. His answer is immediate: “Like Star Trek! It presents a hopeful view, where science has made the world a better place. Where nothing is sacred, and everyone is interested in what others have to say.”

Lawrence Krauss will be appearing on Q and A on Monday June 29; he will also be speaking with Paul Davies and Rachel Webster at For Thought: Origins Of Life And The Universe on Sunday June 28 at Sydney Opera House, and on Tuesday June 30 at the Wheeler Centre.

The Sydney Opera House will be live-streaming the event via the @ideasatthehouse Periscope account, from 11am-11.50am on Sunday June 28.

Elizabeth is the editor of Voiceworks, and has been published in Film Ink, Metro, The Punch, and Lip Magazine. She tweets terrible puns @ElizabethFlux