Physicist Krauss, Tippett examine coexistence of science, religion



Jessica White | Staff Writer

What if the purpose of life is just to be alive?

For thousands of years, people have asked questions, built communities and killed others based on the meaning of human life and the idea that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss believes we are, but that it’s not something divine. Krauss, who has won several awards for his research and writing, said he gets the same kind of fulfillment that many people get from religion or spirituality simply by being part of an amazing universe.

“People want to believe that there’s some grander purpose to the universe, and that’s fine that they want to believe that — I understand that,” he said. “But I’d like to convince people that the universe is so amazing itself, that even if there is no grander purpose, we make the meaning in our own lives. We are lucky enough to be endowed with intelligence that can understand the universe and can try to make the world a better place.”

Krauss will join radio producer and host Krista Tippett for a conversation about modern physics and the major theological questions it raises at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Tippett, who will use the conversation for her nationally syndicated radio program “On Being,” said interviews with scientists are some of her favorites and that she has had her eye on Krauss for years.

“Whether physicists themselves are religious or not, physics is so full of existential questions and even of spiritual questions,” she said. “And Lawrence Krauss is a scientist who’s talking about the meaning of it all.”

Krauss is a professor at Arizona State University’s physics department and School of Earth and Space Exploration. His research focuses on cosmology, particularly the beginning and end of the universe, and he first proposed the existence of dark energy in 1995. He has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Scientific American, and last month, he was a guest on “The Colbert Report,” where he discussed physics and theology.

Science against religion has been a battle since Nicolaus Copernicus defied the Catholic Church by suggesting the sun, not Earth, is the center of the universe in the mid 1500s — if not before. But Krauss said that doesn’t mean science and religion can’t coexist.

“Science doesn’t make it impossible to believe in God,” he said. “It just makes it possible to not believe in God.”

Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing, supports the second notion by essentially de-legitimizing the need for a god. For thousands of years, people have used God to explain the universe’s creation. How else could billions of particles, stars, galaxies and lives have popped out of nothingness?

But in the past 40 years, as Krauss explains in his book, physicists have discovered that empty space contains most of the energy in the universe, and that empty space actually has mass. The mass is causing the expansion of the universe to speed up rather than to slow down — a discovery that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.

When the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics are applied, the empty space can become unstable. That means empty space can actually produce particles out of nothingness, Krauss said. Based on those discoveries, it is likely that even empty space itself can pop in and out of existence.

Most universes that could pop into existence in such an unstable way shouldn’t survive long enough to do anything, he said, but ours has. The only kind of universe that can pop out of nothingness and survive long enough for people to be here and ask questions happens to have exactly the characteristics of the one in which we live.

“Does that prove that we popped out of nothing? No, but it makes it plausible,” Krauss said. “And even that is remarkable — the fact that modern science has begun to ignite these questions that previously fell in the domain of theology.”

Though Krauss, who grew up Jewish, is not religious, he said he’s not in the business to destroy God.

“What I’m really doing is celebrating the revolution that’s taken place in our understanding of the universe in the last 40 years,” he said. “I want to explain to people how wonderful the real universe is.”