Lawrence Krauss Makes the Case for Science in a Healthy Democracy

By Dan Rubinstein
Photos by Mike Pinder

Canada has recently emerged from a “bleak period in which scientists were muzzled by government,” internationally renowned theoretical physicist and Carleton alumnus, Lawrence Krauss, said during his talk at the university’s annual Ottawa Fall Leadership Luncheon at the Westin Hotel on Oct. 23.

The United States is entering a “far bleaker” period, continued Krauss, who has lived south of the border since graduating with a double degree in Physics and Mathematics at Carleton, going on to a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, positions at Harvard and Yale, and his current post as director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, where he leads a diverse collection of scholars exploring some of humankind’s most fundamental questions.

The current political administration in Washington is “antagonistic” toward science, said Krauss, which has significant ramifications for everything from climate change and energy policy to health care and national security.

“But the relationship between science and democracy goes far deeper than this,” he said, seguing to the main focus of his talk.

Governments have to rely on the scientific community for advice, argued Krauss. Scientists don’t make decisions, but public policy should be based on empirical evidence.

“A healthy democracy depends on informed legislators and on an informed public,” he said. “Science informs people. Science is the way we get empirical evidence. Without science, democracy is at risk.”

Launching a Career in Particle Physics at Carleton

Born in New York City and raised in Toronto, Krauss arrived at Carleton in the mid-1970s, drawn to the university by an undergraduate scholarship, and because it allowed him to study history and politics while majoring in science and math.

The intersection between science and communications has long been a focus for Krauss. In addition to publishing more than 300 academic articles on topics such as the nature of dark matter and neutrino astrophysics, he’s a frequent contributor to publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and the author of 10 books for mainstream audiences, including the bestselling A Universe From Nothing, The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far and The Physics of Star Trek.

“I had a hard time decoupling my interest in science from my interest in human affairs,” he has remarked. “Ultimately, a way to combine the two was to communicate science to the public, and to look at science policy.”

This amalgam of interests was the impetus for the annual scholarship for an outstanding undergraduate physics student at Carleton that Krauss recently endowed with a $25,000 gift that’s being matched by the university. Preference will be given to a student who has demonstrated an interest in science outreach and/or science communication.

In addition to his passion for communicating science to the general public — a knowledge base that citizens need to push their political leaders to action — Krauss is also vocal about the importance of scientific education.

“Science is a process for discovering facts,” he told an audience of about 130 people. “We have to teach using questions, not answers, so children can tell sense from nonsense.”

In the 21st century Internet age, this is crucial, said Krauss. The scientific method — or “skeptical inquiry” — can help people separate real facts from falsehoods.

Plus, when you learn something new, when you discover it for yourself, that’s exciting — and it encourages you to continue the pursuit.

“One of the purposes of science is to make people uncomfortable,” he said. “If you’re never uncomfortable, you’ll never leave your little cocoon. Science makes us stretch.”

From the Sun to the Universe

While in Ottawa, Krauss also delivered a public lecture (“From the Sun to the Universe: Your Hidden Connections to the Cosmos”) at Carleton’s Kailash Mital Theatre.

During the talk, he referred to the pioneering work done by Carleton researchers at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) — shielded from cosmic radiation two kilometres underground in an active nickel mine — and the work currently underway at the facility’s successor, SNOLAB.

“If we detect dark matter, that will help tell us perhaps what the nature of most of the mass of the universe is, because we don’t know,” said Krauss. “We are a bit of cosmic pollution in a universe full of dark matter and dark energy. You could get rid of the sun and all the stars and everything we see in the universe and the universe would be essentially exactly the same. So much for a universe made for us. You are more insignificant than you could ever imagine.”

He also gave a keynote address to students at the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference, which Carleton hosted from Oct. 20 to 24 — a gathering he helped bring to campus 41 years ago, during his final year as an undergrad at the university.

The words he closed his talk with at the Fall Leadership Luncheon would probably ring true to those students:

“You don’t have to be Eric Clapton to enjoy music. You don’t have to be Picasso to enjoy art. You don’t have to be Cormac McCarthy to enjoy literature. And you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy and appreciate science.

“For me, the real virtue of science is that it changes the way we think about ourselves. That makes science a cultural activity, like art or music. Science one of the most remarkable aspects of the human intellect.”