Lawrence Krauss’ universe is expanding — fast.
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?
Now, he knows that — and more.
Krauss studies the Big Bang, whether black holes really exist and how to catch a bit of dark matter, the mysterious, invisible stuff that makes up most of the universe. His books explaining mind-bending cosmic facts in ways laymen can actually understand have sold tens, even hundreds of thousands of copies. He’s even been called an heir to Carl Sagan. He’s Case Western Reserve University’s best-known professor, and probably its biggest hell-raiser.
“Think of the giant screen behind me as the window of a ship that will carry you through the vast expanse of our solar system, boldly going where no man has ever gone before.” He pauses after “going,” deadpan, almost reluctant. A few people laugh. That “Star Trek” reference isn’t just for cliché’s sake; it’s a nod to Krauss’ best-seller, “The Physics of Star Trek,” which uses pop science fiction to explain what really is and isn’t possible in the universe.
“As I speak today, two lonely space travelers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still quietly marching across the Martian landscape, three years after landing on the Red Planet.”
That talent for drawing connections between the imagination and science’s facts is why Krauss is here on this Sunday in December. He’s introducing the movements of Gustav Holst’s composition The Planets. While the orchestra plays the piece, evoking the planets’ roles in classical mythology, the screen will fill with computer animations and actual images of the planets from NASA’s space probes.
“Gustav Holst had no idea what Mars really looked like in 1914, but he captured the feeling of this hostile, desolate place by connecting it to the most hostile of human activities: war.”
Conflict has been on Krauss’ mind a lot these days. He’s just won a victory in his long battle to defend science.
For five years, Krauss has been arguing against introducing intelligent design, an idea that challenges the theory of evolution, into science classes in Ohio. This fall, he helped defeat a key member of the state school board who’d challenged evolution.
Krauss has also tangled with the Catholic Church, arguing with a cardinal in the pages of The New York Times and writing to Pope Benedict XVI, asking him to clarify the church’s position on evolution. Last year, Krauss also confronted authority here in Cleveland, on his own campus. He led a revolt against Case’s president, Ed Hundert, organizing a faculty vote of no confidence that quickly drove Hundert to resign.
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.
When the orchestra finishes its Mars movement and Krauss introduces Venus, something’s on his mind. He describes the second planet’s 900-degree atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead. Its carbon dioxide traps solar energy and converts it to heat, he explains — a greenhouse effect, “more severe than anything Earth will experience for more than 2 billion years, even with our current, unabated, human-induced global warming.”
Krauss is frustrated again — this time, at the president of the United States. His original line, which the orchestra asked him not to read, was “even under the current administration.” Just as Krauss thinks intelligent design seeks to replace the scientific method with unprovable belief, just as he thinks Hundert inspired belief in a vision for Case but couldn’t come up with the money, so he thinks George W. Bush has avoided fighting climate change because he won’t believe science’s warnings.
To Krauss, it’s another infuriating case of blind faith ignoring the facts. And it’s yet another reason he feels he can’t just be an academic scientist, but has to speak up for science, evidence and skepticism anytime and anyplace he can.
Lawrence Krauss’ schedule would exhaust a man of lesser energy. Ask him what he’s working on lately, and you might hear how he flew back and forth this fall from Cleveland, where he’s on sabbatical from Case, to Tennessee, where he’s a visiting researcher and lecturer this year at Vanderbilt University. You might hear that he traveled to Alberta to give a lecture and California for a conference about science and religious belief. Or how, in one week this January, he flew to Washington, D.C., to participate in a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists press conference, then to Boston to speak at a symposium on science and society, where he shared the bill with Al Gore. Get him to slow down, and you might hear about his writing projects: An op-ed column or book review, a book he’s finishing, a book proposal he’s starting. Nudge him more and he might mention his research, crunching astronomical numbers to solve interstellar mysteries.
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.
“One of the things we really lack in this country is a well-known popular intellectual who speaks for science,” says Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller, who has collaborated with Krauss. The late authors Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould used to have that stature. “One reason Lawrence’s work and books are so important is they help to fill that void.”
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.
“This panel looks fair — two against two — but it is not fair,” Krauss told the crowd of 1,500. “If it were representative, you would have 10,000 scientists debating one intelligent-design advocate.”
When the school board endorsed “critical analysis of evolution,” scientists howled. Krauss’ point about fairness hadn’t sunk in. A 2002 Plain Dealer poll showed 59 percent of Ohioans wanted both intelligent design and evolution included in science classes.
“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.
Next, Krauss and other local scientists formed Help Ohio Public Education to campaign against the board’s evolution-challengers. They especially wanted to defeat board member Deborah Owens Fink, a University of Akron marketing professor. They made an appointment with Tom Sawyer, the former congressman and Akron mayor, and asked him to run against her.
“Lawrence was the cleanup hitter,” says Sawyer. “When they got done, he said, ‘You have to run.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t,’ and Lawrence leaned forward and said, ‘Oh, yes, you do.’ ” They needed an experienced campaigner to jump into the race, they told Sawyer.
Krauss “has a very special kind of charisma,” Sawyer says. “He’s able to relate to people where he meets them.” Sawyer soon announced his candidacy. Krauss convinced scientists nationwide to contribute to Sawyer’s campaign, wrote an Akron Beacon Journal op-ed piece criticizing Owens Fink, and got 75 of Case’s 90 science professors to sign a letter asking voters to boot her out of office.
Sawyer crushed Owens Fink by almost a 2-1 margin. Three other candidates Krauss’ group endorsed won too.
“He’s a very brilliant man, a very passionate person and very arrogant,” says Owens Fink. “He would dismiss people who didn’t agree with him as politically motivated, advocating a particular agenda, rather than talking about the science of it. The reality is, he’s very politically motivated in his agenda.” Krauss is an outspoken liberal, she complains, pointing to his membership in the anti-global-warming Union of Concerned Scientists and the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, which opposes the religious right on science education, end-of-life questions and stem-cell research.
Scientists, meanwhile, admire Krauss for standing up for evolution. “The leadership role he’s taken on has engendered enormous respect for him,” says Taylor, his Case physics colleague.
Activism is easy for Krauss when he has his peers’ support. Campus politics were more intimidating.
Last February, Krauss sat staring at his computer screen, rereading the e-mail he’d written, searching for the nerve to hit “send.”
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.
“It probably was the most difficult thing I’ve almost ever done,” Krauss says. “I had no idea if this was going to completely fail, and if it was going to burn every bridge I had at the institution.”
Hundert had come to Case in 2002 from the University of Rochester, full of inspiring ideas for improving the school. He wanted it to do more of everything: Attract more students and more star professors, increase research, renovate the campus, and pay for it all by running a deficit that’d be paid off with more government research money and more alumni donations. Four years later, though, fund-raising was faltering, the deficit was increasing to $40 million, and faculty members were complaining the administration was withholding too much financial information.
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.”
Case’s “rebranding” efforts, meant to project a catchier identity, had backfired. When the school started calling itself Case instead of the awkward acronym CWRU, many alumni of Western Reserve University, still touchy about its 1969 merger with the Case Institute of Technology, stopped sending donations. When the university debuted a new logo made up of two vertical lines and two horizontal ones, students joked it looked like a fat man carrying a surfboard.
For months, as the budget numbers got worse, Case professors had been talking. What should they do?
Krauss thought much of his Case legacy was at stake. He’d come to the school from Yale, recruited by the aging physics faculty to take over as their chairman.
“He was largely responsible for rebuilding the department,” says physics colleague Glenn Starkman. Krauss recruited first-rate new professors, tripled the number of physics grad students and built up the particle physics program into one of the most prominent in the world. He was so successful that some professors elsewhere at Case became jealous, even distrustful: Why should physics get so much?
But more recently, Krauss had grown frustrated with Case’s direction. He’d chaired a panel that recommended improving graduate education and research. Its ideas had basically gone nowhere. Another faction, who advocated improving undergraduate education, was winning the day; Krauss felt parts of that strategy were a “marketing ploy.”
Projects Krauss held dear were suffering. The university was cutting funding for his astrophysics and cosmology research and for hiring physics professors. The budget crisis was threatening to undo years of his work.
Krauss hit “send,” and his e-mail popped into inboxes across campus. Within 12 hours, he got twice as many professors’ signatures as he needed to schedule the no-confidence vote. Word got out to local and national newspapers. Ten days later, the arts and sciences professors voted 131-44 to declare they no longer had confidence in Hundert, and 97-68 to say the same about the provost.
Two weeks later, Hundert resigned. “The continuing tension on campus is too distracting to the advancement of our university,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Some Case staffers are still upset at Krauss and his allies for chasing Hundert away. Grover Gilmore, dean of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, thinks the no-confidence vote “turned into more of a show,” attracted too much media attention and negativity about the school’s health, and derailed Hundert’s own attempts to fix the budget problems. “The undergrads I talked to were really sad to see Dr. Hundert resign,” says Gilmore. “They liked him. They thought he did a lot for the students on campus.”
Hundert could not be reached for comment for this story. Anderson, who is still provost, says the administration was already confronting the budget problems before Hundert left — for instance, by reorganizing the budget office the previous fall. He says the vote did not change Case’s strategy for improving its finances.
“I think we would have proceeded in basically the same way,” Anderson says. The vote did have one positive result, he adds: “One thing we learned was we needed better communication with the faculty and staff.” As for Krauss, Anderson says, “He did what he felt he needed to do. I have to respect his actions.”
Krauss’ friend Cyrus Taylor says Hundert needed to leave for the school to reverse its troubles. “Ed projected a fantastic vision, and in the long run his legacy at Case will be positive,” he says, “but the mode we were entering in — financial difficulties — was one that did not play to his strengths.” Taylor thinks someone else would have organized a vote if Krauss hadn’t and that Hundert would have eventually been forced to resign anyway, perhaps after things had gotten even worse.
After Hundert left, interim president Gregory Eastwood pushed through a painful round of budget cuts and layoffs. Some deans resigned, and new deans took over. Now, Case is recovering fine from its leadership crisis, faculty members say. A well-regarded new president, Barbara Snyder, now the provost and executive vice president of The Ohio State University, will take over in July. It’ll take a while for the school to climb out of its deficit, but faculty members say the new administration is much more open with information and on track toward improving its finances. Undergraduate admissions were strong this year.
“The general sense is we’re going to come roaring back,” says Taylor, who was recently named the new dean of arts and sciences.
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.”
Two months earlier, in May 2005, Krauss had written an op-ed piece for The New York Times about how science and religion can be compatible. As an example, he used Pope John Paul II’s statements that accepted evolution as scientific fact, coexisting with the church’s belief that the universe has a divine purpose.
Then, in July, the archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, wrote his own New York Times op-ed. “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not,” it read.
The cardinal also argued that there was “overwhelming evidence for design in biology.” That sounded to Krauss like an endorsement of intelligent design. A New York Times reporter soon called Krauss and said the Discovery Institute’s intelligent-design advocates had sent Schönborn a copy of Krauss’ piece and gotten the cardinal to write a response.
Krauss had to do something. “I thought it was vitally important not to take a giant step backward,” he says. If Schönborn’s idea became Catholic doctrine, it would roll back decades of progress in dialogue between science and religion.
So he decided to write to the new pope.
Krauss isn’t Catholic — he’s Jewish and agnostic. But that didn’t stop him.
He looked into the etiquette of writing the pope, everything from how to greet him (“Holy Father” if you’re Catholic, “His Holiness” if you’re not) to where to send a letter (Krauss addressed one package directly to the Vatican, another to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — which, he notes with a wry unbeliever’s faux-nervousness, was formerly the Inquisition). He wrote the first draft and got two Catholic biologists — including Kenneth Miller, who had debated the intelligent-design advocates with him in Columbus — to join the letter and help revise it.
But when Krauss’ secretary put the letter in international express packages, she didn’t include the two op-eds that had started the debate. So Krauss put together new packages and staked out the FedEx box to make the switch.
The 6 p.m. pick-up time came and went. Krauss waited. Finally, around 7:15, the FedEx truck pulled up.
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 ...
The delivery man started asking questions. He was a creationist and believed the Earth was less than 10,000 years old.
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.
A couple of days later, Krauss got a call from the FedEx office in Rome. “We have a package for a Pope Benedict in the Vatican,” the worker said. “We can’t find this person.”
Krauss said he’d buy some shares in FedEx, and then announce that the company couldn’t find the pope in the Vatican. The guy laughed.
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.
“This letter was extremely well done,” says George Coyne, director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world. “My impression is it helped. The church has stepped back from making any declaration on this, which is wise.”
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?
“It’s a fun exercise,” he shrugs. “It’s fun to write the pope.” Then he turns more serious. The fact that The New York Times will print his opinions makes him something of a “public intellectual,” he says. That carries responsibilities. “I’m fortunate to have a voice that can be heard,” he says — and he felt he should use it.
Lately, though, some scientists have been making the exact argument Schönborn warned against: That scientific reason supports atheism and refutes the existence of God. That’s put Krauss in a strange position, as a sort of agnostic defender of faith.
This fall, Krauss reviewed famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ new book “The God Delusion” in the journal Nature. “This book is, for the most part, a well-referenced sermon,” Krauss wrote. “I just have no idea who the intended parishioners might be.”
Krauss’ views and Dawkins’ are actually pretty similar. “From all my studies of science and everything I know about human history, I certainly see no evidence for any creator,” Krauss says. But he found the book heavy-handed, condescending (“I felt Richard was offending even people who agreed with him”) and unscientific. Dawkins “claims to give a scientific argument against God, and I didn’t find it particularly compelling.” Metaphysical arguments about God aren’t science, Krauss says.
“Lawrence has really been quite outspoken on the point that science is not inherently antireligious,” says Brown’s Kenneth Miller. “It is a testament to his fierce intellectual honesty that he has consistently pointed out that there are questions that science cannot answer.”
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.
“Are we too polite, too afraid to argue that not believing in God might be a good thing?” Krauss asks. “Many problems in the world today are due to the fact that people don’t question their beliefs. … If belief in God disappeared from the scene,it’d be very difficult to believe you’re divinely right — that you have God on your side when you slam into a building.
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