Lawrence Krauss, the author of the popular The Physics of Star Trek and
heir-apparent to Carl Sagan, believes the standard 1980s model of
cosmology is dead. His replacement is perhaps the strangest possibility
by Douglas Page, © 2000
Space has a new meaning.
The accepted model of cosmology, which had heretofore assumed that space was actually empty - that Einstein’s cosmological
constant was indeed zero - has been superseded, thanks to Lawrence Krauss.
In Krauss’ bizarre replacement the cosmological constant is non-zero, meaning the energy density of the universe
today may be dominated by empty space.
During the 1980s cosmologists developed what looked like a beautiful model for cosmology, based on fundamental ideas from
particle physics which appeared to agree with the wealth of emerging observational data.
news then was exciting. Central to the 1980s model was the notion that
the Universe is exactly "flat", in the sense that the ratio between the
density of matter in the Universe, which works to slow its present
expansion down, and the current expansion rate, are exactly matched so
that the Universe will expand forever, slowing down, but never quite
"Geometrically, this meant the curvature of space on large scales is precisely zero," says Krauss, the Ambrose Swaney Professor
of Physics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
"Now, a decade later, we are beginning to have overwhelming evidence that there simply isn't enough matter in the Universe
to make this happen," he says.
four years ago, Krauss and colleague Michael Turner, the Rauner
Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of
Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, argued that
even a stranger possibility was suggested by the data. They proposed
that in fact the Universe was flat, but the missing extra density was
provided by the energy associated with empty space.
peculiar notion that empty space might govern the nature of an
expanding Universe was first proposed, in a different context, by
Albert Einstein in 1917, but he quickly discarded the idea when it
became clear it wasn't necessary to reconcile observations and theory
at that time.
Since then, the best value for the cosmological constant was assumed to be zero, since no measurement indicated the contrary.
observations of the expansion rate of the Universe now lend much
stronger support to the notion that it is not zero, and is precisely in
the range Krauss and Turner argued it should be on the basis of other
observations. Even a very small pressure can be important if it
permeates the entire Universe.
why empty space has energy, and why it should have an energy that is
comparable to the present energy density associated with matter in the
Universe is currently well beyond our understanding, which makes this
one of the most interesting developments in cosmology in the past 20
years," Krauss says.
Krauss is drawn to interesting science like moons are drawn to major planets. It’s what makes him glow.
Krauss, who has a loquacious gift good for generating public interest in science, is not content merely continuing
what Einstein started. He’s intent now on resuming the work of the late Carl Sagan.
Krauss, already the author of five popular books, among them The Physics of Star Trek (Harper Perennial, 1996),
and Beyond Star Trek (Basic
Books, 1997), has a talent for amusing readers with lively discussions
of theoretical physics. He does this by enshrouding the more arcane
topics of physics in entertaining questions, addressing issues such as
what happens when the transporter beams you off the bridge of the
Starship Enterprise, what anti-matter is and what starships do with it,
how a hologram differs from a holodeck, and exactly what gets warped at
fiction, Krauss has found, is useful in teaching physics to those who
might otherwise be uninterested. Tending more toward Hawaiian shirts
than academic tweed in his writing style, Krauss provides new
approaches for the unconversant to such topics of popular interest as
the potential for the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe, the
possibility of intergalactic space travel, the nature of the quantum
universe and what it would take for extrasensory perception to really
The books became bestsellers, interesting a broader audience than the Trekkie subculture. Beyond Star Trek, for
example, sold over 120,000 copies in hardcover, a record for its publisher. Another, Fear of Physics
(Basic Books, 1993), was printed in eight languages and was the 1994
finalist for the American Physical Society's Science Writing Award.
New York-born, Canada-raised Krauss is equally comfortable lecturing
undergraduates on physics and astronomy, speaking at the Yale Club,
delivering the opening plenary lecture in French at the biannual French
Physical Society, addressing a room full of Klingons or chatting on the
tranquil couches of Good Morning America. His campaign has taken him
several times recently to Kansas, to counter the creationism movement
by attempting to inject reason into the resurgent nescient zealotry
there intent on cumbering the state’s public school system.
All of which have helped establish the ebullient Krauss as the heir-apparent to Sagan’s crown of Popular Champion
kinetic Krauss, a fan of Plutarch, Portnoy, Chomsky, the Beatles,
Sartre, Woody Allen, and the Marx Brothers, has a mind possessed of
equal parts eclectic, protean intelligence and crisp, playful wit. He’s
fond of saying "I like to keep my mind open, but not so open my brains
persistence and popularity recently earned him the 1999-2000 Public
Understanding of Science and Technology Award from the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest
interdisciplinary science organization.
Krauss has become a much-needed successor to Carl Sagan," says 1979
Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow, the Higgins Professor of Physics at
Harvard University. "He’s an inspiration to our scientifically-inclined
youth, a gifted advocate of scientific literacy for all citizens, a
demystifier of science, and its staunch defender as a force for good."
the Universe is comprehensible at all continues to amaze Krauss, 45,
who received his Ph.D. from MIT, and was a Fellow at Harvard before,
first, joining the physics and astronomy faculty at Yale, then Case
would have thought that we, a sentient species, living in a remote
corner of a mediocre galaxy, would be able, by a series of observations
made without having left our own solar system, to uncover so many
mysteries of creation?" he asks rhetorically. "That we can predict with
confidence the results of processes that occurred in the first second
after the big bang, when the Universe was over 10 billion degrees in
temperature, and that our predictions agree with observations, is
Krauss’ love of science started in his formative years, reading popular books by and about scientists such as Einstein,
Gamov and Asimov.
"It got me excited," says Krauss, whose parents, Fred and Geraldine Krauss, operated a gift shop. "Those books are one
of the reasons I now write popular books myself, hoping to excite young people."
mother, who wanted him to become a medical doctor, encouraged his early
interest in science, but unfortunately this gave him the impression
that doctors were scientists. "By the time I found out they weren't, I
was hooked on science," he says. "This is not to say, however, that it
was clear to me that I would choose a career in science. I enjoyed
history very much, for example, and worked on a history book as an
undergraduate. But throughout I retained an interest in fundamental
questions about the universe. The notion of unraveling the secrets of
nature really turned me on."
same awe that drove Sagan now drives the garrulous Krauss, who relishes
the idea of succeeding Sagan. Sagan helped carry on an important
tradition in science, and Krauss likewise believes scientists have a
responsibility to explain what they do to the public, for three
the public pays for our research; two, we cannot expect people to
support our work if they do not appreciate it; and three, science plays
such an important role in the development of our technological society
that it is both extremely sad and dangerous for the public to be
scientifically illiterate. I think that my efforts at popularization,
while they do take time away from my research, are among the most
useful things I do," says Krauss. "And frankly, since I seem to be able
to do it successfully, I think I have a responsibility to continue
Krauss says the demands on him have grown so great he has begun to guard his time more jealously.
share my time between running the physics department, initiating new
programs, hiring faculty, fending off administrative offers here and at
other universities, working on research problems with postdocs and
students, writing my books, and lecturing publicly as well as doing a
lot of TV and radio," says Krauss.
helps that his wife, Kate, and their 15 year old daughter Lillian,
understand the demands of serving many masters. It also helps that he
tends to work well doing several things at once, and that he requires
current schedule illustrates the pace of his life and the scope of his
talent. Right now he is working on four research projects on issues
associated with cosmology, including such items as the cosmological
constant and the origin of matter in the universe; three books,
including a new popular book, titled Genesis, The Lives of an Atom;
a college-level introductory textbook on physics for non-science
students; a new edition of an old book he wrote on dark matter; and two
TV series, one based on the Genesis book, and another potentially
associated with The Physics of Star Trek.
A Little Song, A Little Dance
there are the lectures, which average two to four every month somewhere
around the country, to which he brings the soul of a fanatic and the
energy of an entertainer. Since 1996, Krauss has given more than 300
lectures and media interviews. He is a regular contributor to the op-ed
pages of the New York Times, including one article he faxed at 3 a.m.
following NBC's sappy broadcast early last year of "Confirmation: The
Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us".
fun-loving Krauss believes you have to do whatever you can to make
people interested, which frequently involves a little song, a little
dance, a little seltzer down your pants. He shares his office, already
choking with books and promotional materials, with two life-size
cutouts of Capt. James Kirk and Science Officer Spock.
enthusiasm for science never dwindles. The wonder of it vibrates inside
him like an instinct seeking its source. It still tickles him that we
can predict what it’s like inside a star that’s exploding - when a
region the size of the Sun shrinks to the size of Manhattan in a few
seconds, and that our predictions are verified when we observe obscure
particles called neutrinos coming from the other side of the galaxy.
kinds of wonderful aspects of our intelligence should not be ignored,"
he says. "I am continually amazed by the fact that the observable
Universe, covering at present over 20 orders of magnitude in scale, can
be explained by a handful of equations, in such a way that physicists
who study one set of phenomena, can make themselves understood by
physicists who study remote areas. Why the same notions re-occur
throughout nature is perhaps something of a mystery."
these hidden connections is part of what continues to make physics
exciting to Krauss. To him, the most interesting ideas humans have yet
devised are scientific in nature, and it troubles him that universities
tend to require students to read great literature in order to expose
them to great ideas.
saddened that we don't appreciate the cultural importance of the great
ideas associated with scientific discovery," he says. "In some sense,
Einstein's remarkable ideas about space and time have filtered down to
popular culture, but the vast majority of the insights we have about
the universe haven't. I firmly believe that if people were properly
exposed to this wealth of ideas, they would be as turned on as I am.
relatively simple ideas, like Energy, have changed the way we live. In
fact, I would argue that the concept of energy was a more important
development, from the point of view of human civilization, than any of
the profound ideas associated with political philosophy in the 18th and
19th centuries," he says.
most admires people who work hard, and who are honest with themselves
about themselves. "I have been blessed with many remarkable
collaborators, and perhaps Frank Wilczek, a physicist, stands out
because of his pure interest in knowledge," he says. "Generally,
Richard Feynman is a strong role model, both because of his no nonsense
attitude, and his continual desire to have fun with physics and life. I
admire Noam Chomsky, because of his intellectual honesty about
unpopular issues. I also admire people who are more selfless than we
physicists, or academics in general. After all, we get paid to do
exactly what we want."
Krauss is doing is exposing the lay world to the same infectious
enthusiasm for science for which Carl Sagan was once best known.
Sagan’s trademark turtle necks, elbow patches and "billions and
billions" may be gone but his fervor for science remains, passed to