The Physics Of Lawrence Krauss
Journalists Blame A Case Professor For Destroying The Universe
By James Renner
REVENGE OF THE NERDS - Krauss and Dent wage war with string theorists.
Note to readers: Watching reporters try to cover discoveries in
quantum physics is like watching squirrels try to water ski.
Occasionally, one gets it right, to the amusement of many, but most
times it ends rather badly. For instance, when Case physics professor
Lawrence Krauss and a colleague from Vanderbilt recently released a
new paper titled "The Late Time Behavior of False Vacuum Decay,"
reporters with New Scientist, the UK's Daily Telegraph, and the Plain
Dealer, tried to explain the implications of the paper's findings. And
they all got it wrong. Most likely we will, too. But what the hell,
right? Let's give it a try.
First of all, Lawrence Krauss is kind of a dick. He really is. He has
little patience for reporters who show up at his office at Case asking
for an interview. He answers questions while sitting at a computer and
corresponding via e-mail with people more important than reporters.
And who can blame him? After all, reporters have been screwing up
science for decades. Just look at the mess they're making of climate
change and evolution. Reporters - daily reporters especially - try to
balance interviews when reporting on these topics; they interview him
and then they interview someone at the Creation Museum or GOP
headquarters for counterpoint. But, in science, there is no "other
side." Evolution exists. Global warming exists. Period. Why are
reporters giving equal time to crackpots?
Secondly, this man has an ego the size of the Eta Carinae Nebula. He
coats his office door and inner sanctum with newspaper clippings about
Lawrence Krauss and papers written by Lawrence Krauss and books
authored by Lawrence Krauss (pick up the Physics of Star Trek, by the
way - it'll blow your Vulcan mind!).
But Lawrence Krauss can get away with being kind of a dick and having
a giant ego because he's very good at what he does. Like, LeBron James
kinda good. Think of him as the Dr. House of theoretical physics. And
he'd have to be pretty damn sure of himself to go around challenging
what even the few people as smart as he is think they know about the
A BRIEF HISTORY of modern physics by a reporter who majored in English
and once read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Albert Einstein discovered a relationship between matter and energy
that is expressed in the neat equation E=mc2. It's good math that
works for predicting how planets and galaxies interact and move
through the universe, but it doesn't work so well when you try to
measure the speed and location of very small things. Subatomic
particles adhere to the strange rules of quantum mechanics. For
instance, you can never really locate a quark - a building block of
matter - and determine how fast it's going at the same time; you can
only calculate the probability that it is where you expected it to be.
Part of the problem is that matter exists in different states until it
is forced to choose one by an observer. Matter can exist as physical
particles or in wave form. A wave is sort of like the notes on a sheet
of music. When observed, the notes change into a song. When observed,
waves of matter become physical particles.
Physicist Erwin Schrodinger came up with a horrific way of
illustrating a paradox that this rule of quantum mechanics creates.
Schrodinger imagined a box in which he placed a cat and a bottle of
poison gas attached to a Geiger counter. Also in the box is a nucleus
that has a 50-50 chance of decaying in an hour. If the nucleus decays
it will register as a blip! on the Geiger counter, which will activate
the release of the poison gas, killing the cat. But here's the cool
part: If you don't open the box, the cat will remain both living and
dead. The experiment needs the observer to force a resolution. Think
of it this way: if no one looks in the box, why does it matter if the
cat is alive or dead?
Yeah, my head hurts, too.
What scientists are searching for is a single theory that can unite
Einstein's equation and quantum mechanics. One explanation is string
theory, which imagines that quarks are really just tiny strings that
vibrate in different ways depending on what they need to do. This
explains the strangeness of small things and can be applied to really
big things like black holes - if you also believe that the universe
has 11 dimensions, which, according to Krauss, is just silly.
"Some of my best students have been string theorists," says Krauss.
"But I wouldn't want them to marry my daughter."
Last year, Krauss published a paper that explained that black holes
don't exist. He thinks that what we believe to be black holes are
really just stars with serious gravity issues. Needless to say, this
caused quite a stir amongst his peers.
So then Krauss's name appeared on a paper that seemed to imply that
when scientists first observed matter's evil cousin, dark matter, in
1998, it hastened the end of the universe by allowing dark matter to
exist, and all hell broke loose. Reporters thought they could
understand what he was talking about. And string theorists, smelling
blood, were ready to mock him.
"Mankind Shortening Universe's Life" was the headline in the Daily
Telegraph. But that's not what Krauss was saying.
"Just because we are determining the configuration that the universe
is in, it doesn't change the way the universe behaves," explains
Krauss, who coauthored the paper with James Dent, a young physicist
from Vanderbilt. In their paper, the two scientists theorize that
because we are able to observe dark matter, and dark energy, in the
spaces between galaxies that should be voids, our universe might exist
inside a "false vacuum." Here's the problem with false vacuums: Should
a true vacuum suddenly form inside one, things don't go well. (Place
your Dust Buster over a bunch of mini sweet tarts, hit the "on"
switch, and see what happens. In this experiment, the mini sweet tarts
represent planets.) Turns out, as the universe ages, it has the
tendency to form more true vacuums. So if the universe is old enough,
our cosmic neighborhood could percolate like a coffee pot at any time.
"The good news is, you won't know what hit you," says Krauss. "But I
wouldn't exactly sell your Google stock just yet."
But - and here's where it gets really hard to understand - we didn't
hasten the universe's demise by observing dark matter. Like the cat,
the universe's destiny was inescapable, the observer just made it
"It's the Schrodinger's universe," says Krauss, as if that should
clear it up.
ON DEC. 7, James Dent gave a lecture on this new theory in front of a
packed house in the physics department at Case. Dent, who just got his
PhD last year, has spiky hair, earrings and a goatee; he's more Steve
McQueen than Stephen Hawking. He was affable. He made nerd jokes.
Everyone laughed. But the physics are so new that even physics
students in attendance were left scratching their heads.
"There were probably seven people in that room who fully comprehended
what he was saying," admits sixth-year grad student Zak Staniszewski,
who got lost when they started showing the math.
Cosmology student Audrey Todhunter at least knows what she should be
studying in order to stay on the cutting edge of physics. "It lets you
know what you don't know already," she says.
Following such lectures, students traditionally take the visiting
speaker out to dinner to pick his brain some more, in private
sessions. They debate the nature of the universe over beers and pizza,
and slowly get a better idea of the strange reality in which we live.
Reporters aren't invited.
On Wed, 16 Jan 2008 10:39:55 -0800 (PST), chatnoir
>The Physics Of Lawrence Krauss
>Journalists Blame A Case Professor For Destroying The Universe
>By James Renner