Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lawrence Krauss - words of wisdom

"Too often in the media, speculative ideas are treated on the same footing as well-tested ones. As a result, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between them. This is particularly unfortunate when firmly grounded ideas that are known to accurately describe the physical world (such as evolution and the big bang) are passed off as mere theoretical whims of a group of partisan scientists.  One of the most useful tasks a popular exposition of science at the forefront can achieve, it seems to me, is clearly differentiate that which we know yields an accurate description of nature on some scale from those things we have reason to suspect one day might do so. And the worst thing such an exposition can do is confuse the two."

                                                   ~Lawrence M. Krauss
                                                        from Hiding in the Mirror

I had the good fortune of meeting Lawrence Krauss last Friday as he recorded the radio show "On Being" with Krista Tippett at Chautauqua Institution here in Western New York.  He was happy and irascible in front of a large crowd of religious people in the open-air "Hall of Philosophy." 

Throughout his interview he drove home his point over and over that God and science do not mix, that science is the best method for learning and religion is a collection of childish myths and we all need to grow up. The gasps from the crowd were priceless. 

Krauss took the opportunity to explain how the discovery of the Higgs boson affects our understanding of the universe. A subtle point not covered by many popular outlets is that the Higgs field barely interects with photons. This accident of our existence explains how photons can travel at the speed of light while the rest of matter is slowed by the strong nuclear force and the newly verified Higgs field.  

While speaking of the Higgs Krauss urged the audience to embrace the ecstatic awe discoveries like these can provide without the need for faith. He stressed the satisfaction that comes from a secular humanist view of the universe.

Krauss pointed out that faith leaves humanity helpless in making policy decisions. He proposed policy be decided based on evidence. A strangely novel suggestion in the current political atmosphere. He said it bothered him greatly that McCain and Obama choose to have a presidential debate on faith rather than issues that actually matter like approaches to human health and disease, energy, and the environment. What did we learn from the faith debate in 2008? That both candidates had it. So what?!?!
When you do not base you moral and ethical decisions on evidence you end up with the republican party!
One of the best moments of the day was when an elderly woman asked Dr. Krauss "what can science tell us about love?" He responded with a wonderfully humanist answer I will paraphrase from memory.
Science can tell us a lot about love starting with chemistry and physiology. From a scientific world-view a person can approach love honestly. I can tell you that I am deeply in love right now. When I feel love I am seeing and sensing shared values in another human being. Of course I am sexually attracted to the  person but on a deeper level I see myself in her. I see the ideals, the things I aspire to most in her. That reflection can easily come from a scientific approach to love.

After the interview I picked up a copy of his book Hiding in the Mirror and was pleased to see him described as a "writer-scientist" on the back cover. From now on I aspire to be a "writer-scientist" myself. Too often I think people who go from doing science to writing about science feel the need to re-label themselves "science-writers." I see no need for this re-branding. We are all scientists!


Though I did want to ask him many different questions I choose the one most important to me. I asked him if he supports Open Access. He replied with gusto.
"Yes, of course. In fact astrophysics pioneered open access with the invention of the ArXiv. I see journal articles as for archival purposes. I don't even read journals anymore, just the ArXiv."

As a biochemist I had not heard of this resource and was happy to look it up and experience it first hand.  With this awareness fresh in my mind I was shocked to see the ArXiv all over science news this week. A law newly passed in the UK requires all research publications made possible with tax-payer funds be made openly available to the whole world online. The astrophysics ArXiv was used as an archetype for how to make this happen.  Brilliant!

While I do look forward to a world with wider and wider open access I approach this world with Lawrence Krauss and his words of caution in mind. Carl Sagan had something to say about this as well.
"We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.
For our collective understanding of the universe to mature we need to have a lot of ideas. This means there will be countless bad ideas. The trick, I think, will be not to get caught in an eddy in the river of knowledge. Dogma, fear, and superstition have proved themselves sure paths into those stagnant waters. 

I applaud Lawrence Krauss for encouraging us to grow up.
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