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Interview: Lawrence Krauss

Physicist Lawrence Krauss is the author of such books as A Universe from Nothing and The Physics of Star Trek. The new documentary film, The Unbelievers, follows him and Richard Dawkins as they travel the world arguing in favor of atheism.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.

Tell us about this new movie, The Unbelievers. How did you get involved with that?

The young team that made it were actually fans of ours and had attended one of the first events I’d put on in the Origins project at Arizona State University, and it was an amazing event. We filled up an auditorium with six thousand people for twelve hours to listen to science. We had most of the well-known scientists and public intellectuals in the world there, and it was an amazing event.

Afterward, they accosted me in the parking lot, I remember, and they were fans and they had said — Gus, who’s now the director, had said that it reminded him of a rock concert. They were former musicians. They were also filmmakers but they enjoyed several films, one of them by Radiohead that explored what it was like to tour, to be on the road. What they wanted to make was a rock-and-roll tour film about science. In any case, all of this I heard later.

We started to talk and a few years later, they asked me to do a cameo in actually a science fiction movie that they were making, which is almost finished now. But I did it, and I was very impressed with the quality of the work they were doing, and when we needed some people to film and potentially record several of our events for archiving, for the Origins project, I asked them to do it.

The first event they did was an event with me and Richard, but I was blown away by the quality of the product. They had talked to me about doing various films, including ones of my books, and Richard and I were scheduled to do a tour of Australia together doing several dialogues, and three weeks before we actually went, I actually managed to secure funding. It’s amazing to think they put it together in three weeks, and had a film crew of six people, two different crews in Australia, and that started what ended up being about eight months of following us around in various locations, first in Australia, in New York, in England, Washington, and Phoenix. They ended up doing a hundred and twenty hours of footage of us and put together the movie.

At the same time, we also thought about whether it would be reasonable to have them interview, or have us interview, other people — in particular, celebrities. It’s all right for Richard and I to be promoting science and reason, people know we do, but I like the idea of trying to reach a broader audience, and it seemed to me important for people to know their cultural role models, ranging from directors to movie stars, even though they aren’t scientists, were fascinated by science. We were fortunate to get several — a lot of people I knew — from Woody Allen to Cameron Diaz to Werner Herzog, Ricky Gervais and others, to agree to be interviewed. Those interviews are at the beginning and end of the movie, and I think they’re great, and of course, they also hopefully will attract some people who don’t know who Richard and I are.

The idea is to not proselytize so much against religion, but rather to get people talking, to get them thinking. My great hope is that it will reach an audience who haven’t thought about these questions. The early results were encouraging. We had a big screening where we provided people with questionnaires and we learned a number of things. First of all, people said that after the movie, they spent the evening at a restaurant talking the whole evening about the movie and having a discussion with their friends, which is exactly what we want. Also equally interesting, people who declared themselves as religious were perhaps the strongest group for saying that they would encourage friends to see the movie, which really surprised us, and that was also encouraging.

Now that it’s out on iTunes and Amazon and many places around the world, it’s really encouraging to see that it’s got a broad audience — it’s right now the number one documentary on iTunes, and that’s the point. It’s not just to preach to convert; I’m hoping we reach a broad audience and get discussions going about the nature of science and reality and truth and nonsense, and it ends on a high note. It actually ends interestingly enough — and this says something — the last scenes are something called “The Reason Rally,” the rally for reason that was in Washington D.C. about two years ago, and thirty thousand people — from atheists to secularist to humanists — came to the Mall to celebrate reason. What’s amazing is that no mainstream media outlet covered it. Thirty thousand people were on the Mall at Washington and no mainstream outlet covered it, which I think says something about the difficulty of openly saying that you question the existence of God, and as I say in the movie, “It’s unfortunate that you simply can’t ask questions when it comes to religion as you can with every other human activity from politics to sex.”

I’ve been really excited about this movie since I first heard of it, and we’ve been contacting Gus for over a year, it seems like, trying to set up an interview, and so I’ve gotten a little bit of a glimpse of all the distribution problems and things that the movie has gone through. From your perspective, what kind of challenges has the movie faced?

It’s been a learning experience. I’ve written a lot of books and I’ve appeared in a lot of documentaries, but I’ve never been involved in helping produce one at that level. The first thing I discovered is that documentaries are simply hard to get distributed in general. Most distribution companies and media people don’t think there’s a market for documentaries, which surprised me a lot, and even though there was clearly a built-in audience — almost three hundred thousand people downloaded or viewed the trailer for this movie in the first month that the trailer came out. When we did our world premiere, which was in Toronto at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival a year ago, the movie was sold out almost instantly. There were lines for six hours to wait through the rain for extra seats, last man standing room, and they had to add an extra showing of the movie, and we thought, “Wow, that’s a good sign.”

Even then, we couldn’t make a deal for distribution and partly, of course, it’s the problems of documentaries in general. Most documentaries don’t get distributed. But also, I think there’s no doubt, the concern of some people at least, that a movie that’s perceived to be about atheism might have problems with distribution and sales, and I’m happy that the results of the last week, at least, have proved us right and those people wrong. There is interest, but even then, even from the time we signed with a distribution company to get attention paid to ultimately distributing it, and we felt very bad because the fan base was asking for this movie for a long time, and we said, “Well, we signed a distribution deal.” They said, “Great, when’s it going to come out?” We didn’t know, and it’s been over a year since the world premiere, although that often happens.

People don’t realize that movies get announced often a year before they come out, but there was great frustration among many people who kept saying, “Why won’t it come out? Why? What are you doing? Why are you holding on to it?” We were as frustrated as anyone else, and we tried to convey that. It’s nice that at least an initial release has taken place, but even so, of course, around the world, there are various countries where it hasn’t come out yet. It’s come out in the United States, Canada, and England, and digitally on Video On Demand, iTunes, and Amazon. The DVD will be available probably by the end of this month. I’m in Australia right now and a lot of the movie happens in Australia. We had an Australian premiere at the Sydney Opera House, but it still hasn’t come out here. It’s frustrating.

Could you talk a little bit about your friendship with Richard Dawkins? How did you guys first meet and how did you become this tag-team duo traveling the globe?

It was sort of organic-involved. There was no strategy. We first met probably over a decade ago at an event that we were both speaking at, and we actually disagreed. As Richard has described, his first memory is me asking a question after a talk of his that was a difficult question to answer, and we disagreed about, I think, strategy in terms of reaching the public. I was concerned at the time about whether the best way to reach people was to approach them and say, “You’re wrong,” and maybe “You’re stupid, or at least you’re not thinking correctly,” whether you should instead approach people a little more gently.

We had a long discussion about that, and in fact, [based on] our initial discussion about educating people about science and about the nature of religion, following a late evening-long discussion that we had, we decided to put it together as a Scientific American article, which was a dialogue between the two of us. That was fun to work together on, and that was beginning of our relationship and our friendship, and then we’ve been together at events, not because we’re asked to be together, but we often have appeared together. Maybe about seven years ago, Stanford University asked us to do an event together, and they wanted to have a moderator with us on stage, and Richard was pretty adamant ultimately that we shouldn’t have a moderator, that it should just be a dialogue between the two of us. That created a new style, which was very successful.

And as he says in the film, moderators usually get in the way. If there’s more than two people around, then when those two people, A and B, are having an interesting conversation, the moderator will often interrupt in the middle and say, “What do you think about that, C?” and just break the flow. Obviously, I think you have to be a fairly well-conditioned public speaker to be able to comfortably have a dialogue and know how to pace it, but we both have done that a lot.

So I really enjoyed it and Richard did, and I think the audience did. We decided that we liked that format a lot, and Richard wrote the afterword for my most recent book, A Universe from Nothing. He had a new book coming out, The Magic of Reality, around that time, and we thought it would be fun to have a series of dialogues talking about both those books or the content of both those books, going back and forth, and talking about everything from evolutionary biology to physics. We had a dialogue at Arizona State, which had been filmed by Gus and Luke almost six months before we did the Australian tour, and then we did the Australian tour, and it was a challenge. It’s not so easy, but it was fun.

Those form the basis of material for producing the movie. We also have, for want of better words, each been asked to debate groups — from Muslim groups to the Archbishop of Sydney. All of those things appear as well, at least little bits of those events, to demonstrate the kind of things that we’re doing. We became not only close friends, but I think our views have certainly converged. I don’t know if Richard has moderated his views a lot, but he has, and I’ve come to appreciate much more the need to be honest and confront the religious nonsense that permeates so much of our society. People often call Richard strident, and maybe I did, but once my last book came out — and again, in the book, I just asked questions. There are very few places where I even discussed religion, but people react and call me strident just for saying, “You know what? How dare you propose that God isn’t necessary to create a whole universe? That you can create a whole universe from nothing?” I began to realize that just asking questions, you get called strident, and Richard is often misrepresented as being so. I guess I’ve come to appreciate that a lot more as I get condemned for the same heresies as him.

It was really interesting when The God Delusion first came out, all you heard in the press was, “Oh, Richard Dawkins is so philosophically and theologically naïve. Real philosophers/theologians would just make mincemeat out of him.” And I have to say, watching him debate various people, I have not been impressed at all by the arguments that they’ve been able to muster against him.

I have to say this — and I’ll get more hate mail, especially from philosophers, about this — but I’ve now done tons of debates with religious apologists and philosophers, and for the most part, they’re incredibly weak. Especially, I find, the philosophers. Let me point out I have a lot of friends who are philosophers who understand the relationship between philosophy and science, but there are some people, some philosophers, who think philosophy in some sense is a substitute for science. In my book, I made a joke which perhaps infuriated that group. I talked about the fact that a number of philosophers and theologians take exception with my discussion of nothing, and as I said, well, they’re experts at nothing. And, of course, that set the stage for subsequent debate.

But you’re right. I’m often called philosophically naïve or theologically naïve. Then when you try and base the discussion not on theology or philosophy but on science, they still say, “Oh, you’re theologically naïve.” This is the point. I was once in the Vatican at the Pontifical Academy, lecturing, believe it or not, and talking to theologians. I was being a little facetious but I was also being honest. I said, “You know what? You have to listen to me but I don’t have to listen to you.” What I meant by that is that to be a — I don’t know if this phrase is an oxymoron — but to be a sensible theologian or at least one who has pretense of being scholarly, you at least have to have some vague idea of what’s going on in science. How old the universe is, etc., etc. But to do science, you don’t have to know anything about theology, anything that theologians and to some extent philosophers do. Scientists don’t read theology, they don’t read philosophy. It doesn’t make any difference to what they’re doing. It may not be a value judgment, but it’s true.

You mentioned Richard Dawkins being misrepresented, and I don’t know if you saw this, but just in the last day or so, a bunch of people were posting this story from The Guardian about Richard Dawkins saying fairy tales are bad for kids. I’ve been through this before with Harry Potter, so I know that this is completely made up, but it’s just crazy how often this completely ridiculous headline gets resurrected.

You just have to add one word. Richard would say religious fairy tales are bad for kids, and the reason is the difference between fairy tales and religious fairy tales is one we tell kids as stories to put them to sleep and one to get them excited. We tell them about Santa Claus, but we don’t expect them to believe it when they grow up, and we also don’t suggest it’s the truth. In some sense, fairy tales are to provoke kids to think and that’s what Richard’s all about.

You’re right, all sorts of distortions of his position are presented and you can see them. You can see some of this, and the same for me. In the movie, there’s a discussion with the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell, who happily for the Australians has now been moved to Rome, because he’s a very, very, I have to say, dislikable or hateful individual. At least he comes across that way and also, unfortunately, rather ignorant. But throughout their debate on TV, Cardinal Pell misrepresents evolution and Richard’s views, and misrepresents mine, although it’s not in the movie. We were both supposed to be in the program with him but he said he didn’t want to debate two people. So he took advantage of that to completely misrepresent my viewpoints as well, and it happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I read on blogs and websites complete distortions about what I say and again, complete distortions about what Richard says, but to be fair, I think it’s true of any public figure that you have to get used to being misquoted and misrepresented.

Whenever I bring up these sorts of Richard Dawkins arguments against religion, people always say there’s no point in even arguing about religion; nobody ever changes their mind; no rational argument ever convinces anyone to change their minds. And I have to say that most of my friends these days are atheists. Virtually all of them were raised religious, and virtually all of them changed their minds in response to rational arguments that they heard presented to them over the years, so I don’t know why people are so certain that you can never change someone’s mind by presenting rational arguments.

Since I like to base my, quote, “beliefs” on empirical reality, I have lots of evidence that supports your viewpoint. In particular, both Richard and I, although we don’t show it in the movie so much, get email every single day from people who tell us that our debates, our discussions, and our books have changed their lives, that they had been trapped, and it’s unfortunate. People think there’s nothing, that religion is innocuous. Even if religion doesn’t say to cut someone’s head off if they steal something or whatever, it’s not innocuous; it causes people pain. I get emails all the time from people saying, “I was in a family, and I began to question things, and I felt like a bad person. I was ostracized, and your books and the movie or the debates have shown me that I’m not alone and that I can think for myself.” So our discussions do have an impact.

More than that, when we debate some religious fundamentalist or maybe an apologist or whatever, we don’t expect to change the minds of those individuals. They don’t listen to what we’re saying, that’s true. That’s not the reason one does it, if one chooses to do it. It’s really for the vast [majority of] people in the middle. In England, in the census, they ask people’s religious affiliations and I think fifty-four percent in the last British census, fifty-four percent of the people declared they were Christian, which was the lowest ever, although still the majority. But Richard’s foundation went and did a subsequent survey of people who checked the Christian box, and they said, “Well, do you believe in this? Do you believe in the transubstantiation? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe in this, do you believe in that?” Universally, people would say no, no, no, no, no, and then ultimately the question was, “Why did you check the box?” The answer is, “Well, I like to think of myself as a good person.” So people like to say they’re religious or Christian, because to not say so is to often be labeled as evil, and we have to change that in our society.

All those people, really they should be checking Jedi because they’re clearly good guys, right?

Yeah, exactly, and moreover, as my late friend (and the movie, as people will see, is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, who is a friend of both Richard’s and mine, and a remarkable man) said, “Religion poisons everything.” As Richard points out adequately, and now I guess I try to, people say, “Okay, well, religion has nothing to do with science, but it’s a guide for how we should live.” Well, it’s a pretty darn poor guide for how we should live. If you look at the Old Testament, it’s hard to find a more immoral book, and the same is true of all the scriptures of all the world’s religions. They’re not guides to live. You wouldn’t want to live the way they say, and if you do, inevitably, it produces violence and hatred.

Another reason we wanted to get you on the show is because you’re the author of The Physics of Star Trek, so I did want to talk about some science fiction stuff with you as well. You mentioned that Gus, the director of this Unbelievers film, did a science fiction film in which you had a cameo. Tell us about that.

It’s a time-travel story. It’s a film that they’re just finishing up now, and it’s a film involving a young boy who is interested in science. There is a scene where he comes to my university and has a chat with me, and I haven’t seen the whole film. I’ve done the cameo, and I know they’re working on post-production now. Obviously, I’ve been interested in science fiction. Gus and his brother Luke, who’s the director of cinematography, have been big fans of science fiction. So it’s neat to be in a science fiction movie. There’s actually another movie that I’ve done a cameo in which has elements of science fiction in it called London Fields. It’s actually a mainstream Hollywood movie that’s coming out with several major stars, but I’m not allowed to let you know who. It’ll be fascinating to see what we filmed for a day, what comes out in that.

The other thing I should add is that Gus and Luke’s family are extremely religious people. They came from a fundamentalist background, and it’s been interesting for their family to see the movie. They’ve experienced the same breakout that in some sense many people write to us about, and I think that’s part of what they wanted to celebrate — their own recognition of skepticism and inquiry and science. I suspect their interest in science fiction probably helped them be interested in science, and for many young people, it’s a chicken-and-egg case. I don’t know whether when I was a kid I read science fiction because it encouraged my interest in science or whether my interest in science encouraged my interest in science fiction. As Steven Hawking says in the foreword for The Physics of Star Trek, “Science fiction encourages the imagination like science,” and it’s a wonderful thing for that reason.

So you’re obviously a Star Trek fan. What other science fiction books or movies are some of your favorites?

I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was younger. I read some Isaac Asimov. I read John Wyndham, a British science fiction author. Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes and, I think, Village of the Damned.

Midwich Cuckoos is the book.

Midwich Cuckoos, that’s right. The movie got made into Village of the Damned. I liked him a lot for some reason, and I read science fiction short stories. I read Robert Heinlein. I read a number of the major science fiction authors. It’s interesting because what happened to me is that as my interest in science began to blossom, as I became a scientist, I stopped reading science fiction as much and read science, because frankly, as I try and say in The Physics of Star Trek, although I certainly watched Star Trek — every episode when I was a kid, because I liked it (I also watched a lot of TV in general) — but truth is stranger than fiction. The real universe is actually far more fascinating than the universe of science fiction. The imagination of the universe far exceeds the human imagination, and therefore, for me, as amusing as science fiction is, I usually find it comes up short when compared to the real universe.

You mentioned Steven Hawking, and one of the things I wanted to ask you about is you often quote his line about how we know that there’s no time travel because we haven’t met any time travelers from the future.

Yeah, though as you also probably heard me say, he changed the line in the preface of the book, and I claim that one of the reasons was that I told him that they all went back to the 1960s and no one noticed. In fact, it is a paradox. Time travel is probably — I’m probably anticipating your question, and if I’m not, we can change the subject — but for me, time travel is probably the most interesting science fiction concept, because of course it brings up all these paradoxes. My favorite episodes of Star Trek involve time travel, and the whole paradox of time travel, of changing the past, is a fascinating one. In fact, it’s that paradox that’s convinced many physicists, including Steven, initially, that time travel in the real universe isn’t possible. But as he recognizes, because he’s a scientist, the universe doesn’t give a damn what we care or what we like or what we think is reasonable. Time travel may seem unreasonable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Just as much of quantum mechanics seems unreasonable but it happens.

I don’t know if you saw the movie Primer, but it presents the idea that you could build a box in which time goes backward, and so an implication of that is that you could travel backward in time but only back to the point at which the box was constructed. So it’s possible that in the future, time travel will be invented, but you’ll need sort of a receiving station, and you can’t travel back any farther than that.

Actually, there’s some relationship of that to science. It’s called closed timelike curves. The idea is that, in general relativity, time and space are related intimately as part of what we call space-time in both special and general relativity. Now, you could do a circle in space, no problem. I can travel from Australia to the United States — I’ll be doing it tomorrow in fact — and then I can come back, as I’ll do in July. So there’s no problem doing round trips in space, and so, if you think about it, why can’t you do a round trip in time? Such a round trip in time is exactly what you’re talking about, because of course, you return to the point you began but not earlier. These things are called closed timelike curves.

The big question in physics is: Are closed timelike curves possible? There’s a lot of debate and discussion about that, and there are some good reasons for thinking potentially not. In general relativity, you can create any curve you want, including the closed timelike curve, if you create the kind of space, designer space, if you wish. But to create a designer space, you’d need special kinds of energy. The question is, are those kinds of energy physically realizable? That’s the ultimate question. The initial evidence isn’t good, but we don’t know for certain. But again, in those kinds of closed timelike curves, you sort of get around the time travel paradox because you cannot only return to time before the machine was constructed, if you wish, but you’re doomed to repeat the mistakes in the past. The curve repeats itself; it never changes, and therefore, you get around this ultimate paradox, which I mentioned in the book and which is a famous paradox — I call it the Grandmother Paradox — which is what happens if you go back in time and kill your grandmother before your mother was born. Well, then your mother’s never born, but then you were never born, and if you were never born, how did you go back in time and kill your grandmother? So you get around those kinds of fascinating paradoxes of the Terminator and other things. It makes time travel less interesting, perhaps, but it’s still fascinating to know whether even that’s possible.

I heard you say in your lecture on The Physics of Star Trek that faster-than-light travel, like we see in a lot of science fiction movies — Star Wars, Star Trek — necessarily involves time travel? Could you talk about that, and is a science fiction author who chooses to have faster-than-light travel, like hyperspace jumps in Star Wars, obligated to also have time travel be something those characters can do?

In principal, of course, you’re entitled to anything you want. The operative word in science fiction, we should say — and several science fiction authors have agreed with me on this — the operative word is not science. It’s fiction. You have to tell a good story, and you have to get people to suspend disbelief in a way that’s plausible. Then you can do whatever you want. Science fiction doesn’t have to be accurate. It has to be interesting. In general, it is true that if you were to create something like wormholes, as I talk about in the book (wormholes allowed, of course, Jodie Foster in Contact to go from one place to another, and there’s my favorite wormhole in Star Trek), it’s a good way to travel through space, in principle, faster than light because you take a short cut. You go from one point to another by making a new tunnel, if you wish, that connects those two points that’s much shorter than going through the background space. It’s a good idea if you can do it, but as has been shown, if you were to create such a tunnel, automatically, you would have to have a time machine.

Now, it’s also true that if you could travel literally faster than light — which by the way, you can’t; you can’t travel faster than light through space — but if you could, then time would go backwards. In fact, it’s the reason, as I talk about in one of my other books, why antiparticles exist as Richard Feynman first discussed. For every particle in nature, there is an equal mass and opposite charge, and it turns out that we can show that antiparticles exist because essentially, they behave like particles going backward in time, and a negative charge going backward in time is equivalent to a positive charge going forward in time. If you could travel faster than light, relativity tells you that you’d be going backwards in time. We’ve searched for such particles — they’re called tachyons — particles that are doomed to have ever traveled faster than light would literally be traveling backward in time. Although there’s no sensible theory that incorporates such objects, physicists recognize they shouldn’t be guided by theory all the time, that they should be guided by experiment. So people look for tachyons and, of course, never see them.

I definitely understand that you can’t have a velocity through space that’s faster than light, but if you were to take some sort of shortcut through space, folding space, or going through a wormhole, you would still be traveling through time anyway, right?

I can explain to you how to do it. It’s pretty simple. At least I think it is. If you have a wormhole, then one mouth of the wormhole is anchored to one place in space and the other mouth is anchored at another place in space, and you go through the wormhole, and you come out somewhere else. But one end of the wormhole could be moving through space, say, at near the speed of light. Let’s say it does a big circle in space at near the speed of light, five light years around. Well, that end of the wormhole is traveling through space. Einstein’s special theory of relativity tells us that an observer sitting at that end of the wormhole, their clocks would be moving slower than the clocks of the observer at the other end of the wormhole who’s at rest in space. So one observer may see the other observer far away at that end of the wormhole going on a ride five light years around, and if they’re traveling near the speed of light, it will take them almost five years to do that. Fine. But the observer who’s on the mouth of the wormhole that’s moving, their clocks are traveling slowly and that whole trip may just take two weeks. So that observer is now five years minus two weeks behind the observer at the other end of the wormhole, so if you go through the wormhole, you come out five years minus two weeks earlier. A wormhole is a time machine.

Another Star Trek thing I wanted to ask you about is: You say in your lecture that the transporter is impossible because a) of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and b) because the amount of data to record every atom of the human body is just beyond any imaginable recording device. We interviewed Brian Greene a number of episodes back now, and he was saying that this quantum teleportation that takes advantage of quantum entanglement has the potential, in the future, to possibly get around Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle for teleporting objects.

Brian should know better. It doesn’t ever get around Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. What it does is exploit the weird behavior of quantum mechanical systems to allow, if you very specially prepare a quantum mechanical system, you to do what looks like teleportation. But the whole point is we are not — we, you and me — are not specially prepared quantum mechanical systems. We are not. One of the ways to find that out is, if I were to take an electron and throw it at the wall of the room I’m sitting in, every now and then, it would literally tunnel through the wall and suddenly appear on the other side of the wall. You can, if you wish, from now to the end of time, run towards that wall with your head forward and bang into the wall, and I guarantee you that you will never end up on the other side of the wall unless you could break a hole in the process. We are not specially prepared quantum mechanical systems, and therefore, we can’t take advantage of the weird quantum mechanical properties that you can for an individual photon or even for maybe an atom or a molecule. We can use that for maybe things like quantum computing, but it’s not going to allow us to transport a human being, unfortunately, and I wish it would, believe me. The transporter is the reason I wrote the book. I found it fascinating, and also, since unfortunately I fly all the time, I’d love to avoid that and figure a way to avoid the security lines in airports.

Speaking of quantum mechanics, I heard you say something years ago that really stuck with me. You said that people should never use the phrase quantum mechanics and consciousness in the same sentence?

People shouldn’t. It’s all right to use in the same sentence if you say that consciousness —

Has nothing to do with.

Well, I was going to say it has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. That’s not true, in a sense, because quantum mechanics is the basis of all physical phenomena. But people who argue that you could use quantum coherence to understand consciousness — it’s a fun word and they use it, unfortunately, to argue for all sorts of New Age garbage. But your brain is a complicated system with lots of particles interacting, and it’s unlikely to expect that quantum coherence is responsible for the nature of consciousness because quantum coherence gets destroyed in most physical systems because of the many particles interacting in a small fraction of a second. Although, of course, quantum mechanics at some level underlies the atomic interactions and chemical interactions that are taking place that determine memory and, in fact, biochemistry, we’re not sophisticated, coherent quantum mechanical machines, I expect. Moreover, anyone who makes a claim about consciousness is probably lying, because we don’t understand the nature of consciousness. There are lots of people who try and make a living by being hucksters. In particular, there are those people, those awful people, who promote things like that silly, nonsensical book, The Secret, that suggest that quantum mechanics, if you think about it, it will happen. If you want it, it will happen. That somehow your desires can affect the universe, and that is the worst garbage, the worst misrepresentation of science mechanics. Fraudulent. It’s a lie, and people should ignore those people, and moreover, ridicule them.

One thing I was wondering about is, you’ve talked about how we’re just not evolved to think about quantum mechanics because we evolved from this event in Africa. I was wondering if you could upgrade your brain with cybernetics or something, what abilities would be useful for you in science? For example, being able to actually conceptualize more than three spatial dimensions, things like that?

Conceptualizing more than three spatial dimensions would be great. Probably you would have to be a four-dimensional computer to do that, but who knows? The other thing would be to have an intuitive understanding of quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman was fascinated with quantum computing. He was one of the first people to talk about using quantum mechanical principles to create new kinds of computers, as people are actually doing nowadays, or trying to do. He wanted to do it so he could understand quantum mechanics better, and you might say very few people understood quantum mechanics as well as him, but he recognized that, because he was a classical being, he could never really intuitively understand the quantum phenomena. So he wanted to create a quantum computer to see those quantum phenomena more explicitly. Of course, being able to intuitively experience quantum mechanical phenomena by maybe being a quantum computer might give you a whole new appreciation of physics. In fact, maybe in the future, computers will become conscious. I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t. My friend Frank Wilczek, who’s another physicist, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, has said that what really interests him is will those computers do physics differently than we would? It’s a fascinating question and it’d be interesting to know.

Given the name of the show, obviously we’re big Douglas Adams fans, and Douglas Adams wrote a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Which is the title of one of the chapters in one of my books, by the way.

Excellent. Just based on the latest cosmological knowledge, if you were to build a restaurant at the end of the universe inside the time-space bubble, when would that be and what would the view be like from the restaurant?

Unfortunately, as I described, I think, in The Universe from Nothing, the future is miserable in many ways, and the universe is not likely to end with a bang but rather a whimper, a long, boring whimper. What would happen if you were at the restaurant at the end of the universe is you’d be very lonely, because our universe remarkably is expanding faster and faster. One of the great discoveries of the last twenty years is that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Eventually, all the galaxies that we now see will be moving away from us faster than light. That’s allowed. They’re not moving through space faster than light. Space is carrying them away faster than light, and they’ll eventually disappear in a time frame of about two trillion years.

All the galaxies we now see will have disappeared and our Milky Way galaxy will be alone and lonely, and all the evidence of the Big Bang will have disappeared for physicists who evolve on planets around stars in the far future. They’ll look out and all of the evidence that we now have that there was once a Big Bang will have disappeared. Ultimately, those stars in our galaxy, or what will become the Milky Way galaxy because we’ll collide with several other galaxies in the interim, will burn out, and the universe will become cold, dark, and empty. That’s the future.

As my late friend Christopher Hitchens used to say when I talked about nothing and I explained that to him — he used to say, “Nothing’s heading towards us about as fast as can be, and if you ask the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing,’ one of the good answers that he proposed was ‘just wait, there won’t be for long.’”

So, say the owners of the restaurant at the end of the universe want to open up a new franchise location at the beginning of the universe. What would that view look like?

They would have a hard time doing it, because all evidence of the beginning of the universe would have disappeared, basically. All evidence of the hot Big Bang would have disappeared, and they wouldn’t even have access to the information that it happened much less access to the beginning of time. That is, of course, unless they built a time machine.

No, I’m sorry. I’m saying if they had a time machine.

Well, if they had a time machine, they would not want to create such a franchise because the beginning of the universe was an equally miserable place in a very different sense. It was unbelievably dense. In fact, if you take the things back beyond the domain of validity, it was a single point. But we talk about, with a straight face, a universe, and I wrote a book about the life history of an atom. It begins when our entire visible universe now, which contains a hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains a hundred billion stars, was contained in a region smaller than the size of an atom. You have to imagine stuffing all of that energy and matter into such a small region. It was incredibly hot, incredibly dense, almost unfathomably so. It’s really difficult, if not impossible, to picture everything that’s now in our universe in such a region, but it once was, and what’s really neat is we can test that. We can test those ideas, and we’re doing it by looking out at the universe today and seeing remnants of that time. That’s what makes science so fascinating.

You’ve said that it’s possible that our universe is just one universe within a multiverse of universes, sort of bubbling out of nothingness and coming into existence. Is that multiverse eternal or did it itself have a beginning at some point?

The answer is: We don’t know. It is certainly eternal into the future if our ideas of inflation are correct, but we don’t know. Space and time are tied together, so as far as our universe is concerned, there may have been no before, because time itself may be a product of the creation of our universe — because time and space are tied together in general relativity. Time may have come into existence when space came into existence. We don’t know these questions, nor do I claim to know those questions despite the fact that some people largely ignorant of my book claim that I make such. We don’t know the answers, and we’re trying to find out the answers. It’s fascinating, but I guess that answer is: stay tuned.

A lot of the breakthroughs in high-energy physics, such as the discovery of the Higgs boson, came out of the Large Hadron Collider, and now the European scientists are able to do all this stuff that American scientists were not able to do because of the canceling of the Superconducting Super Collider, and I thought it was funny you said the cost of the Superconducting Super Collider was equivalent to one day’s worth of the air conditioning bill for Iraq.

One week, I think. And the question is, which is more useful? I think, in retrospect, no one who’s sensible could argue that learning about our origins is not more useful than destabilizing a country for no reason, even if the country had a dictator. We probably don’t want to get into politics. It’s sad to think that some people claim the United States could not afford what was then a six billion dollar machine. Six billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but over twenty years, it’s not. By comparison, it’s less than the cost of probably an aircraft carrier, and if we are so impoverished that we as a society have to stop asking questions about our origins or the beginning of the universe and the end of the universe because we don’t have the money, then we are really, truly impoverished, and I don’t think we’re there.

Another thing that’s really struck me in recent years is that there was this presidential debate on religion moderated by Rick Warren, and I know some people were trying to get together a presidential science debate.

Actually, I’m one of the people. You may not know, but I’m one of the people who helped originate that effort.

I think it’s wildly inappropriate for this religious forum in a country with a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. What are the prospects for the future? Do you think there will be a presidential science debate?

No. I’m very happy with what we managed to do. We managed to get both candidates in the last two elections to answer fourteen questions, not a science quiz. We didn’t ask them what is the seventh decimal of pi. We asked them about science policy. That’s what’s so ridiculous about a debate about religion or faith, because all the major questions that are going to face any president in the next decade, from the environment to national security to health to energy, all have a scientific basis. Science policy ultimately is vital to all of the major political decisions that are going to take place. I think the problem is there isn’t a science constituency, if you want. There are people who vote single issue on abortion or gay marriage, perhaps, but scientists can say, “We disagree with the president. Their policies in this area are bad,” but usually that single issue alone is not enough to affect their vote, let’s say, and I think as long as politicians realize that people who are fascinated by reality are not single issue voters, they’re not going to cater to them as they do to religious fundamentalists. That’s an unfortunate situation.

Finally, are there any other books, movies, anything else you want to mention?

Well, I’m writing one, but it won’t be out for another few months. No, I’ll just plug The Unbelievers again. I’m biased, of course, but I hope people enjoy it. I think it’s an enjoyable film as well as a thought-provoking one, and I hope people agree. If that’s successful, we’ll be producing other ones on science, and I’m hoping we can reach a broader audience. Of course, that doesn’t stop the writing. I’m looking forward to my next book, and maybe in a few years, we’ll have an interview about that.

Looking forward to it. Lawrence Krauss, thanks so much for joining us.

Take care.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.