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New book by ASU's Krauss puts fun spin on the history of physics

New Krauss book on physics accessible to laymen, but you do need your brain.
March 15, 2017

Most of modern physics was created in the past 100 years. It took thousands of people from different countries decades to finish what theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss calls an “intellectual Gothic cathedral” — the standard model of particle physics.

This is the story Krauss tells in his new book "The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far."

Like the electromagnetic field, the book has two forces in its tone: the majesty of a master unveiling the secrets of his demesne, but also the gleeful irreverence of a child.

Krauss, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and director of its Origins Project, pulls out some exotic tools to craft his explanations of how we got to where we are in understanding the building blocks of reality. One memorable illustration of the laws of physics involves his infant daughter vomiting on the back of his head in a moving car.

“The vomit followed a trajectory well described by Newton, with an initial speed of, say, fifteen miles per hour, and a nice parabolic trajectory in the air, ending on the back of my head.”

The book is a journey through the history of physics, hand lightly held by a teacher who is forgiving without diluting his subject. It’s accessible to laymen, but you do need to bring your brain. Listen as he introduces gauge symmetry:

“Bear with me now, because I am about to introduce a concept that is much more subtle, but much more important. It’s so important that essentially all of modern physical theory is based on it. But it’s so subtle that without using mathematics, it is hard to describe. … So, don’t be surprised if it takes one or two readings to fully get your head around the idea. It has taken physicists much of the past sixty years to get their heads around it.”

Starting with Plato, Krauss unravels an epic story traversing four centuries to the intense science of today.

“It’s a central feature about how we understand the world and no one knows about it,” he said. “As I think I kind of said somewhere in the book, people think of the 20th century and they think of relativity and quantum mechanics, and 1905 to 1925 are the big two decades. But really 1955 to 1975 were bigger in some sense. We went from understanding one force of nature to understanding three, and understanding the fundamental principle that seems to guide all the forces in nature, and totally revolutionizing our picture of what the universe is really like, that the surface picture is just that — it’s an illusion. That story is really amazing, and that’s why I call it ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far.’”

Easily as compelling as the hunt for the building blocks of reality are the hunters themselves, physicists ranging from emotional ascetics to Rabelaisian voluptuaries, all fighting like alley cats in heat. Isaac Newton saw further by standing on the shoulders of giants. His modern successors often put spurs on first.

“It is a human activity,” Krauss said. “Scientists are humans, but the science that comes out of it transcends that. Scientists are humans, and they get caught in fads and rivalries and pigheadedness and all the rest, but that shouldn’t detract from the process. ... The fact that people somehow overcome and are ultimately able to change their minds is the greatest part about science. The story changes because people change their minds. They realize they’re wrong and they move in new directions. That’s the difference between that and the other ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ where you had the answers before you could ask the questions.” 

Meet Paul Dirac, of whom Einstein said, “This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.” Sometimes called the second-greatest scientist of the 20th century whom most people have never heard of, Dirac was as famous for his taciturnity as his brilliance. Once asked to explain his discoveries in quantum mechanics, Dirac said they “cannot be explained in words at all.”

When Krauss was an undergrad, he called Dirac to invite him to a meeting for undergraduates. Already terrified, Krauss blurted out a rambling request. There was a long pause before Dirac replied with one sentence. “No, I don’t think I have anything to say to undergraduates.”

Dirac, who shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger, was one kind of cat; Schrodinger, who once created an important equation while cavorting on a mountain vacation with a bevy of girlfriends, was another. He was not welcome to teach at Oxford, even as a Nobel laureate, keeping house with both his wife and mistress being frowned upon.

“There are a lot of amazing individuals, and it was fun for me to tell the story, as a story, with the history of the individuals involved, because they’re very diverse,” Krauss said.

Physics is a collaborative discipline, Krauss points out. Cinematic “aha moments” in lonely labs at night are rare.

“Science is a community,” he said. “There are names people remember, but there are a lot of people who are contributing, sometimes wrong-headed ideas, but they drive people the right way. Or sometimes right-headed ideas that are applied incorrectly.”

Krauss said the process of science drags physicists and scientists kicking and screaming to the right answer, even when they have prejudices and wrong ideas, cutting through the surface illusion to the reality beneath. The book is a celebration of what humanity can do, and hopefully humanity can rise above its current issues to move forward, not back.

“It’s an amazing celebration of that incredible intellectual saga, which is unheralded,” Krauss said. “We live in a world right now of alternative facts and nonsense. The process of science, of skeptical enquiry, the basis on empirical evidence, checking sources, all of those things that have led us in science to uncover reality are necessary in society today to help us. Science is taught as a bunch of facts, but it’s not. It’s a process for deriving the facts.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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This guy? He knows people

ASU prof Krauss now has lowest EBS score ever. What's that? Read on.
March 13, 2016

Depp event gives Krauss the lowest ever Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number, the ultimate cross-disciplinary kudos

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

As subtly as the shift in a gravitational wave, the universe changed Saturday night.

Lawrence Krauss’ Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number became the lowest in history, placing him ahead of Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison and Fred Rogers.

His appearance with actor Johnny Depp at the latest Origins Project Dialogues The Origins Project Dialogues are a series of intimate, thoughtful and entertaining conversations with scholars, public intellectuals and interesting Arizona State University on Saturday night brought his Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number down to a seven — the lowest ever, as confirmed by the project’s curators.

To have an Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number, you must have: co-written a scientific paper with someone who eventually connects to Paul Erdos, a legendary mathematician who wrote more papers than anyone else in history — more than 1,500; have performed with someone who eventually connects with Kevin Bacon, often called the most prolific actor in Hollywood; and performed with someone who eventually connects to Black Sabbath, famous for having the most members of any rock band in history (35). A perfect EBS number would be three. (No one has a three.)

Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at ASU, director of its Origins Project and the only physicist to have received awards from all three major American physics societies, now has a seven following his appearance with Depp.

Actor Johnny Depp and professor Lawrence Krauss

Johnny Depp and ASU theoretical astrophysicist talk onstage at ASU Gammage in Tempe on Saturday night. Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Krauss said his new EBS standing shows how remarkably interconnected the world is, in ways few would have imagined in advance. 

“It cements my own view that science, art, literature, film and music are much closer in spirit than many imagine,” he said. “It also demonstrates to me how lucky I have been in my own life to meet and interact with remarkable people in wide variety of areas. ... I never expected this.  It is fun and remarkable to think how connected we are to others, and also to reflect on how lucky I have been in my life’s journey thus far.”

Here’s how it works:

“My actual Erdos number is 3 (Shelly Glashow, a frequent collaborator of mine, has an Erdos number of 2),” Krauss said.

Depp, having appeared with Kevin Bacon in 2015’s Black Mass, has a 1, so Krauss now has a Bacon number of 2.

Depp has played directly with members of Black Sabbath, giving him a 1. Krauss now has a Sabbath number of 2.

With an Erdos 3, a Bacon 2, and a Sabbath 2, Krauss now has an EBS of 7.

Sean O’Connor, a self-described middle-age science geek living in San Diego, and Ross Churchley, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, whose research field is graph theory, the mathematical study of networks, are the co-creators and co-curators of the project.

“Yes, I can confirm that seven would still set the land-speed record for EBS numbers,” O’Connor said before Saturday’s event. “Three individuals are tied at eight (Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil and Daniel Levitin) ... in short, this will be the biggest news in the EBS universe in years.”

It’s very exciting whenever a cross-disciplinary collaboration creates a lower EBS number, Churchley said. “The new connections between fields help make the collaboration network more tightly knit,” he said.

Actor Johnny Depp and professor Lawrence Krauss

If Johnny Depp (shown Saturday at ASU Gammage) were to co-author a paper with ASU professor Lawrence Krauss, he would have the lowest EBS score ever.

The honor carries no privileges, like the right to wear a chartreuse robe, or titles, like the Emperor of Jupiter, but it does grant the bearer the self-satisfaction of being well-connected, Churchley said.

“Although maybe we should make T-shirts or something,” he said. “Of course, with great bragging rights also comes great responsibility: to connect with the less well-connected and reduce as many other people's Erdos, Bacon, and Sabbath numbers as possible. The greatest ambition of an EBSer is to become a hub of collaboration like Erdos was, so that one day we might talk about somebody's Krauss number!”

Krauss’ first thought was that it wouldn’t be fun anymore if there were a Krauss number.  

“But in fact as I reflect on this, the number is in a broad sense arbitrary, so that any reasonably connected representative of diverse fields might probably produce similar values,” he said. “(It might be fun to test this idea) so if anyone thought I was a representative that was sufficiently recognizable so that someone could actually determine their Krauss number easily, that might be nice. And I do like interacting with as many different sorts of individuals as possible in my life, so if I could merely serve as a medium for reducing others’ EBS numbers I suppose that might be a positive thing.”

The next most likely candidate to eclipse Krauss’ standing sat next to him onstage Saturday night. If Depp co-authors a paper with Krauss, he would have a 5 (3-1-1).

“I would love it if Depp got an Erdos number by working with Dr. Krauss!” Churchley said. “It would be very much in the collaborative spirit of the project if one EBS holder created another with a joint paper.”

There was an EBS moment at the Origins talk. Depp talked about meeting force-of-nature journalist Hunter Thompson at the Woody Creek Tavern outside Aspen, Colorado.

“I’ve been there,” Krauss said. “I took Stephen Hawking there.”

“Oh, to have been a fly on the wall,” Depp said.

“I wish we’d all been there together,” Krauss said.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now