Years ago, he began studying particle physics, but that was much too small. So Krauss went big, really big. He switched to investigating the cosmos, because he wanted to be the first to know how the universe will end: Will it implode or will it burn out?
Krauss turns to watch the screen. The orchestra begins its stark, ominous piece, and the screen lights up with a computer image of a spacecraft flying though Mars’ orange sky, then actual photos of the planet’s surface: blue valleys, yellow ridges, brown craters, an immense dark volcano bigger than Mount Everest. The piece, said to have inspired John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme, crescendos and crashes, and an unfurled Mars rover appears. Bows slash elegantly across the cellos and violas, creating urgent staccato bursts. Calmly, Krauss looks back at his stand and his script, then to the screen and the players.
Krauss’ life has been a Renaissance man’s fast-forward dart and dash for more than a decade. He came to Cleveland in 1993 to chair Case’s physics department, a position he held for 12 years. “During his time as chair, he had, essentially, three full-time jobs,” says colleague Cyrus Taylor: “chairing the department, running his research group, and his role in, essentially, public education of science.” Krauss has been a leading popular science writer and speaker since “The Physics of Star Trek” was published in 1995. His 2001 book “Atom” follows a single oxygen atom from the Big Bang into the distant future, while 2005’s “Hiding in the Mirror” looks skeptically at the idea that extra dimensions exist.
In early 2002, Krauss felt compelled to speak louder. The Ohio State Board of Education was talking about rewriting science lessons to question evolution, the central idea of modern biology. The hot new challenge to evolution was “intelligent design,” which argues that life is too complex for science to explain and must have been designed by a higher intelligence.
Though Krauss is a physicist, not a biologist, he felt evolution’s critics were really attacking scientific thought by arguing (as Krauss describes it) that “the scientific method is not appropriate until God is part of the equation.” So that winter, he and Miller debated two intelligent-design advocates at a forum the school board organized in Columbus. “Devil Worshippers Go Home,” read a protest sign Krauss passed on the way in.
“It’s unfair to children to present a lie, [this] myth that evolution is controversial and suspect, and isn’t adequate as a scientific theory,” Krauss says. So he wrote op-ed pieces for papers from The Plain Dealer to The New York Times and advised lawyers for parents in Dover, Pa., who were challenging intelligent design in federal court. When the judge ruled that intelligent design is a religious view that doesn’t belong in science classrooms, Krauss warned Gov. Bob Taft and the state school board that Ohio risked a lawsuit if it didn’t drop “critical analysis of evolution.” The board reversed its decision last February.
His message called for Case’s arts and sciences faculty to hold a vote of no confidence in Case’s president, Ed Hundert, and its provost, John Anderson.
Krauss felt the Hundert administration’s priorities were all wrong. “You’ve got to recruit great faculty,” he says. Instead, he argues, administrators seemed preoccupied with “slogans and public-relations tricks.” On fund-raising, meanwhile, “We were doing a disastrous job. We were alienating alumni.”
Far from hurting Krauss’ reputation on campus, leading the faculty revolt seems to have helped his stature. “Because I’ve had a high profile, I think there were a lot of faculty who probably didn’t trust my motives,” he says. Now, he thinks many of them “at least have more trust in me, and maybe even like me.” Some professors who thought Krauss’ success advocating for physics came at the expense of other departments were impressed, explains Starkman, when he articulated what they were thinking about Case’s leadership.
Challenging authority was nothing new for Krauss.
Krauss was staking out a FedEx box on Case’s campus, waiting for the driver to show. He held two packages, hoping to substitute them for two in the box. One address read: “His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, 00120 Vatican City.”
So he decided to write to the new pope.
Krauss asked to switch the packages. It was really important, he said: He was writing to the pope about evolution, The New York Times was about to run a story ...
Krauss got nervous. He asked him to deliver the package anyway. The delivery man told him not to worry. “I take my job very seriously,” he said.
FedEx kept calling, for the pope’s street address, then his phone number, then to say the Vatican had refused delivery. Sending packages directly to the pope, it turned out, was not the proper etiquette. Fortunately, Krauss had also e-mailed the pope.
That fall, the Vatican’s newspaper ran a respected Catholic biologist’s article saying intelligent design was not science. Schönborn himself backed off somewhat. “I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition — that the limits of a scientific theory are respected,” he said in an October 2005 lecture in Vienna. The cardinal said his real argument was with those who want to say God played no part in creating the universe.
Not every cosmologist corresponds with Pope Benedict. Why Krauss?
In November, Krauss argued with antireligious scientists at the Beyond Belief conference in La Jolla, Calif. Over dinner, he and Dawkins spent hours debating and are now writing a dialogue for Scientific American. He says he and Dawkins agreed on a few things, mostly that religious skeptics are too defensive, treating religious arguments with kid gloves.
Full of antsy energy, Krauss
paces across the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s auditorium stage. He’s looking semicasual but authoritative, wearing a brown sport coat over a subtly striped shirt, no tie, and pants with a braided belt.
He starts his speech with a quick aside about his activism. “I will be talking about doomsday in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday,” he says. Krauss recently joined the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who have been warning for decades about the dangers of nuclear war, and who have recently added a new worldwide threat to their agenda: global warming.
That’s why Krauss slipped that greenhouse-effect reference into his Orchestra introduction. At a recent Bulletin meeting, he learned that scientists’ best indicators show the Earth is 10 years away from a point of no return. If we act now to reduce our carbon emissions, we can stop the rise in global temperatures by about one degree — but if current trends continue, climate change will be unstoppable, he says: “We’ll have a different planet.”
Today, though, Krauss is here to talk about his area of greatest expertise: the universe. His PowerPoint throws an old photo of a giant telescope onto the screen behind him. At the foot of the telescope stands a distinguished-looking man, peering into the eyepiece, smoking a pipe. He “gives me inspiration and hope, which I often need lately,” Krauss says. The man is Edwin Hubble, the namesake of NASA’s orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, and the astronomer who discovered in 1929 that there are other galaxies besides ours, and they are all moving away from each other.
Our knowledge of the universe has grown, Krauss says, from Hubble’s discovery in 1929 to new breakthroughs of just a few years ago — breakthroughs in which Krauss himself has played a part.
After Hubble, he says, “The central question in cosmology became, what’s the future going to be? Is everything going to keep expanding and moving apart, and the universe becoming cold and dark? Or is it going to collapse in a fiery reversal of the Big Bang? Are we going to end in fire or ice?”
That, he says, is why he got into cosmology. “I wanted to be the first to know how the universe would end.”
For the next hour, Krauss describes the greatest breakthroughs astronomers have achieved since Hubble’s day. They’ve used supernovae — exploding stars of immense brightness — as “standard candles” to measure how far away the supernovae’s galaxies are. Then they used those distances to triangulate the speed of galaxies, which led them to discover the age of the universe: “13 1/2 billion years old — except in Ohio, Alabama, Georgia and a few other places,” he jokes. Around 1995, they essentially weighed the universe, calculating the mass of galaxy superclusters by measuring how they bend the light behind them. And in 1998, scientists at the South Pole mapped cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang.
The results scrambled everyone’s ideas about the universe. The galaxy-cluster calculations revealed that “most of the mass of the universe doesn’t shine,” Krauss says. “It’s dark matter.” They also suggested that the universe had only 30 percent of the mass needed to make the universe closed — that is, likely to collapse someday. But the microwave radiation evidence suggested that the universe was flat, the midpoint between an open and closed universe. The contradiction led cosmologists to a mind-boggling conclusion: There’s energy in empty space — dark energy, scientists call it.
“This will win the Nobel Prize. It shocked everyone,” Krauss says. “The biggest energy in the universe comes from nothing, comes from empty space, and it’s causing the expansion of the universe to speed up.”
That may seem nonsensical, but the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics say it’s possible, he says. So the old rules about how the universe behaves are gone. “The whole reason I got into cosmology, which was to determine the end of the universe by measuring the total amount of matter there was? Out the window.”
Instead, Krauss has contributed to the changes in cosmology. He was one of the few who wrote about the possibility that dark energy existed before the convincing evidence was calculated in the mid-1990s — one of the things that made Krauss a leader in his field.
Krauss tells the crowd that the implications of a rapidly expanding universe are dire, in the very long run. If the expansion is speeding up, he says, other galaxies will eventually move away from us faster than the speed of light — which is allowed in general relativity. A hundred billion years from now, when astronomers look through their telescopes, “the rest of the universe will have disappeared.” That means “life must end,” Krauss says. Those isolated astronomers will be stranded, without energy or escape, when their own star burns out — an end in ice, not fire.
Krauss’ own future, though, looks as bright as a young star. “What I’m looking for is a bigger platform to have an impact around the world in the areas I’m working in.” That might be at Case, or it might be elsewhere. He’s talking about founding an organization called the Origins Institute involving Case and University Circle museums. It’d combine physics, astronomy, geology, genetics and psychology to “explore the origins of the universe, the solar system, human cognition and genetic origins.”
Every year, says Krauss’ friend Cyrus Taylor, “stellar institutions around the country and internationally have tried to lure him away.” With Case’s budget problems not totally solved yet, Krauss is listening more seriously this year.
“There are various other possibilities,” Krauss says, “from leading a research institute, or maybe [staying] at Vanderbilt, or an administrative position, from dean to vice president for resea
12:00 AM EST
February 19, 2007