#184 A rendezvous with an Astrophysicist

The first day of February 2008 would stay special for me for a long time to come. It was on this day that I got to meet a person of whom I had read so much in the last few years. Astrophysics happened to be my first love ever since I started learning science. It has and it always will fascinate me the most. The last time I met an internationally acclaimed astrophycisist was in 2003. I still remember that day, I ran out of the exam hall, writing just half the paper to attend a lecture 25 km away from my place. That was the day I met Roger Penrose, the person who worked with Stephen Hawkings on the Black Hole theory. The lecture was about much more than just that. It was about something I was looking into those days. Gone are those days.

This time I happened to meet Lawrence Krauss. A professor at Case Western Reserve University who teaches physics and astronomy. Or better, Astrophysics. His books talk about the strange dark matter than exists around us, in between the planets, stars and galaxies. He says it is the most important thing that makes up most of the universe. Something that we cant see, is all that matters for the universe…

I was fortunate to meet him up for an interview for the campus newspaper. Though, politics, press politics as you might want to call it, this article did not see the light of the printing press!

AM : Me Me
LK: Professor Lawrence Krauss

AM: The Scientific American has quoted you as one amongst the only few living ‘Public Intellectuals’. What do you feel about it?

LK: The key is to reach out to the public. I try to connect science broadly to culture and politics. It’s truly a great honour for me. It’s a nice feeling.

AM: What is you latest book ‘Hiding in the Mirror’ all about?

LK: It’s about the fascinations that humans have towards the concept of extra-dimensions. It is not just about that, but about the ways in which the idea has evolved historically in literature, art and science.

AM: As a kid, what was your greatest motivation that helped you dedicate yourself to astrophysics?

LK: As a kid, I used to read a lot. Books were the greatest motivation for me. I was particularly inspired by the writings of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov and scientists like Gamow, Einstein and the rest.

AM: When you talk about the Powers of Ten show that zooms in from the very big to the very small, you say that it misses the most exotic black matter that is out there, what are you talking about?

LK: My lecture for you guys is all about that ‘most exotic black matter’. If you remove the planets, the suns, the galaxies and everything that is visible to you and me, including humans, the universe wouldn’t be affected at all. It would be largely the same. All this is just ‘cosmic pollution’. All the matter is completely irrelevant. Dark energy is all that is important in the entire universe.

AM: In the most recent developments, you have said and written that the President of the US should be an “educator-in-chief” along with being the “commander-in-chief”, and that science and technology should be an integral part of the presidential debate. How do you look at it?

LK: I believe that science is and would play a major role in public policy making. In the future, science is going to be the basis of the same. Security, economy, health, environment are all linked to science.

AM: India has had a rocket scientist as the President; does it really help in changing the world order?

LK: I’ve had the opportunity to meet him recently. Well, I don’t really know how much it would help in changing the world order, but all I want to say is that the leaders should be educated! They should be literate and effective, and should have an understanding of science.

AM: Do you believe that the Asian countries would race ahead in science and technology soon owing to their human resources, who “score much better in math and science tests” than the Westerns?

LK: Laughs at the poor condition of American school students and his own quote picked up from an article. Oh it’s highly possible! Right now the US is still the most attractive place for graduate study, but that could change. As far as Asian students are concerned though, they have too much respect for authority… the key thing is to question everything, including your advisors!

AM: What is your view on the relation between science and religion?

LK: They are complimentary to each other. I would like to quote a friend of mine, Steven Weinberg here: “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious”.

AM: Today, top universities like IIT are losing young brains to high paying jobs in the banking and finance sector, consultancies, software and the like. How can things be changed to get more youngsters to do research in Astrophysics or say any field in general?

LK: Well that is a problem in the US as well. We are losing most students to lucrative jobs in almost the same sectors. We need to focus on science. We need to convey the sheer excitement of discovery to the youth and convince them that knowledge is as satisfying as money!

AM: Who for you is or was the one greatest scientist ever?

LK: It is difficult to talk about one, but I would call it a tie between two: Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

AM: Your homepage on the Case Western website calls you ‘moderately photogenic’ but the sheer number of ‘really cool pics’ points that you are ‘highly photogenic’! What do you say?

LK: Has a hearty laugh at this one. The website administrators just love to have some fun with my photographs. It seems you have done a good research on me!

:)

The interview was followed by a walk of almost a kilometre. That was a wonderful moment.

Me with Prof Lawrence Krauss

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