With their hype, they have waited to be abused
Update: It was clarified later today why Krauss ended up in the documentary. He signed a release form and cashed a cheque. So Krauss' pretended surprise shows that he is a greedy liar.Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss wrote a Slate piece about his role in the movie called "The Principle" that promotes geocentrism. Try the impressive video-based website of the movie.
As the trailer shows, he as well as Michio Kaku and Max Tegmark found themselves in a rather motley company (the adjective has nothing to do with your humble correspondent).
Their comments about the coming revolutions in cosmology are being alternated with equally sounding monologues by morons who believe now, in the 21st century, that the Earth is the center of the Universe. (The filmmakers – led by a religious maverick Dr [from Vanuatu] Robert Sungenis – also seem to believe that the Holocaust was a myth.)
Now, I am confident that neither Tegmark nor Krauss nor Kaku believe that the Earth is the center of the Universe. Still, I think that their "participation" in the film isn't quite a coincidence.
The narrator of the movie is Kate Mulgrew ("Captain Janeway") who says not to be a geocentrist and she is unhappy about the movie. It is not entirely clear to me how she could narrate the movie in that case. See also stories at Google News.
Why did I say that it was no coincidence that the statements by Kaku, Krauss, Tegmark were used in this movie?
Well, because they sort of say exactly the sentences that staunch science haters want to hear. It's enough to associate these general statements with a slightly different expectation about the future revolutions and you instantly find out that Kaku, Krauss, and Tegmark are essentially on the same frequency with Sungenis.
I think that their hype about the coming revolutions in cosmology is untrue, easily to be misinterpreted so that it is dangerously untrue, and this hype ultimate does a disservice to science although any hype is probably good enough for those who want to remain visible as "popularizers of science".
Some people in my family and its neighborhood – I don't want to be too specific – believe that science is just another religion, and if it works, it only applies to a tiny portion of our experience. And theoretical physics is relevant just for a tiny fraction of that tiny subset. Imagine how difficult it has to be for me to explain that to be a theoretical physicist means to have the working knowledge of all the important things in the Universe. It's not difficult; it's really impossible. ;-)
So my experience with the staunchly unscientific thinking is of course vastly greater and more diverse than my almost daily encounters with cranks on the Internet (some of whom are really Newtons relatively to some folks who are much closer to me for science-unrelated reasons). And it isn't really just my family and friends, people who don't believe that science has anything to do with the fundamental things in the world are everywhere.
Let me add a few comments on the quotes in the trailer:
Narrator: Everything we think we know about the Universe is wrong.Well, this is a bold yet untrue proclamation. The only possible result of such quotes is to make one think that one has no reason to learn any physics as we know it because it's worthless. It may be intriguing for someone to make people excited about the future revolutions. But if those "consumers" won't be excited about the past revolutions as well, their excitement about the future revolutions is counterproductive and unsustainable.
We know a lot about the Universe and most of it is approximately right. In some cases, our current knowledge will be replaced by more precise, more accurate, fundamentally deeper, more unifying, and simply more true knowledge in the future. But because what we know today has passed lots of tests that show that it can't be quite a coincidence that the theories work, we also know that the future better theories will have an explanation why our current theories will have looked fine – why they are approximately correct.
So I think that such hype making the listeners excited about the future breakthroughs is a kind of cheap ideological porn. We know a lot of things that are approximately true and important which is why new paradigm shifts are difficult, unlikely, and rare. And exactly because they are difficult, unlikely, and rare – they have to pass many tests to succeed – they are or they would be exciting. A revolution in physics or cosmology isn't something that we expect on a daily basis. If a revolution were taking place every day, it wouldn't be too interesting. Revolutions in science are only cool because of their once in a lifetime flavor.
Kaku: There is a crisis in cosmologyWell, I don't think so. Cosmology has entered a remarkable era of a transition from a vague discipline of philosophy into a quantitative and accurate hard (physical) science some 15 years ago. The recent analyses of the cosmic microwave background have sped up this process. But none of these things should be described as a crisis. It's just another phase in a process that leads to the gradual strengthening of cosmology as a science. This process has no reason to end anytime soon, and cosmology as a science didn't really begin recently, either.
Our era is exciting for cosmology but from a sufficiently objective, big-picture perspective, it is not qualitatively different from others. When Hubble found the expansion or Zwicky deduced the existence of dark matter, cosmology was also exciting – and could be described by the word "crisis" by people who like hype. Some previous beliefs were getting excluded, just like other beliefs are being excluded today. But this is the standard process that is happening to some hypotheses in science at pretty much every moment.
So comments that "there is a crisis" are cheap porn, too. They may attract attention but they won't really make people love science – I mean what science really is. At most, such hype may make the listeners excited about a stupid Trotskyist-Smolinian caricature of science.
After some claims about God and pals, the trailer continues:
Krauss: It's an exciting time for cosmology because everything has changed.Well, it's not true that everything has changed. Many things stayed the same and even many things that were really thrilling for the professionals were thrilling exactly because they have confirmed something that the cosmologists and theoretical physicists have believed to be true for quite some time but couldn't directly prove.
Kaku makes a comment indicating that he doesn't believe that the Earth is special. It may be surprising that it got into the movie and Kaku has nothing to be ashamed of here. According to some non-physicist in the film, the future looks very bleak. With this message, they could have asked Al Gore, the IPCC folks, or any other fellow doomsday crackpot and many of them would voluntarily cooperate.
Krauss: It's a strange time in cosmology because we don't understand nothing.It may sound like a wrong grammar version of "we don't understand everything" or, even more likely, "we don't understand anything" (I guess that the filmmakers wanted the viewers to understand Krauss in this way). But Krauss really meant that the concept of "nothing" is incomprehensible yet important. Well, we understand something about nothing, too, and many of the things about nothing that we don't understand (yet) are guaranteed to be physically inconsequential or at least inconsequential for the kind of physics tests and arguments that are relevant today or in a foreseeable future.
Tegmark: Pooogh. Wow haw, what is going on here?Max wasn't pictured as an articulate, comprehensible man, was he? ;-)
Krauss: It turns out that "nothing" is almost "everything".He probably wanted to say that cosmology is able to address the evolution of a giant cosmos around us out of a tiny one – or out of nothing. Even in quantum field theory, "nothing" – meaning the vacuum state – is a very complicated entity. It has quantum fluctuations that "know" about everything that may be there instead of nothing. So an accurate enough theory of the vacuum state in QFT (or an accurate enough theory of "nothing", in more advanced contexts) automatically "knows" about all the particle species and phenomena that may occur if "nothing" is replaced by "something".
But I still think that this hype that "nothing is almost everything" is misleading. If we study the quantum fluctuations of field in the vacuum state of a quantum field theory, for example, we are doing so because we study phenomena that may be measured or perceived only if "something" – at least a measuring device – is added to the space, too. At most, when we investigate the fluctuations in the vacuum state (or more speculative aspects of "nothing" in quantum gravity), we are at least looking into the relationship between "nothing" and "something". It isn't ever a pure investigation of "nothing" itself. If we discuss "nothing" only, it's really a trivial entity.
Kaku: Dark energy – as we call it – is the greatest mystery in all of creation.They had to like this sentence not only because of the doubts about physics but because of the word "creation", too. Well, I am not sure whether dark energy is such a mystery. Its impact on the observable phenomena is simple – it is almost certainly a single term, the cosmological constant term, in Einstein's equations. We have measured its value. The value looks remarkably small relatively to the naive estimates based on quantum field theory or string theory and this wrong prediction of the value has led to the revival of the anthropic principle and related debates.
In string theory, the cosmological constant may ultimately be "calculated" and shown to be small. Many people think that it will never happen because many much larger, different values of the cosmological constant are equally allowed. But those people may be denying some cosmological selection mechanisms or criteria we don't know yet. Maybe no such criteria or mechanisms exist. I would conclude that it is unknown whether there is a lot of wisdom – or important wisdom – hiding behind dark energy. We know something about dark energy in the Universe (assuming it is there at all); and there are things (like the justification of its small value) we don't know. The cosmological constant is the simplest term in the effective Lagrangians (a constant multiple of the square root of g) we know. But there are other things that are "simplest" in some classification, too.
Kaku's assertion inevitably leads people to think that the existence of dark energy is something that may very well justify some big changes of science such as the return to geocentrism. ;-) I even feel that this belief in huge things is the very reason why Kaku and others say such bold statements. So they shouldn't be surprised by the consequences.
A creationist says something incoherent about God and categories, probably expressing the idea that science will always be just an inferior category relatively to God, but I don't really understand this guy and similar guys.
Kaku: There is a [lot] of Nobel prizes for the physicists who unlock the secrets of the dark matter.I think Kaku's claim is right again. Dark matter is very mundane when it comes to the cosmological consequences – just another part of "dust", one that isn't visible via photons. But it's likely that in coming years or a decade or two, many discoveries related to dark matter may win Nobel prizes. Or not. Discoveries can rarely be predicted in advance. But at least, Kaku honestly reproduces the beliefs of many theoretical and particle physicists and cosmologists.
The geocentric moron says that NASA is censoring the evidence supporting a geocentric universe, whatever this evidence is supposed to be. ;-)
Krauss: We may be very special but that doesn't mean that the Universe was created just for us.I agree with that, too. The geocentrist adds that there's something wrong about the idea that the Earth isn't a special place in the Universe. We learn that the disturbances of the Universe are all pointing towards the Earth – the speaker apparently misunderstands that every other place of this "explosion" feels like being at the center, too. This was debated in a recent blog post.
Someone says that our planet is more hospitable than others, so we're at the right spot. Right. I do think that the anthropic reasoning does explain such observations about us and our home. More precisely, the anthropic reasoning turns this mystery into a tautology. We just can't find ourselves at a place that is incompatible with life. On the other hand, the wrong application of the anthropic reasoning is that this opinion that "life requires things to be what they are in our world" is the right explanation for every currently unexplained pattern in Nature. We know that this opinion would have been wrong for many other patterns that have been explained by more conventional, satisfying science, and because there is nothing special about our present – and the present classification "which patterns remain unexplained" – relatively to the past, there is no reason to think that the "anthropic explanation of all the remaining unknowns" becomes valid today even though it was wrong in the past.
We seem to find ourselves in a part of the Universe that is perfectly tuned for life; it's pretty much the same statement as one in the previous paragraph.
Tegmark: Life is extremely rare and we may be the only life in the entire Universe. We may be significant.I didn't find the articulation comprehensible enough. But we may be the only life in the visible Universe. We may also be one of several of very many "lives".
The trailer ends with the assertion that the Earth is special, anyway. It's not moving, anyway, these anti-Galileos tell us about this gospel. ;-)
But Kaku, Krauss, and Tegmark probably did help them. And I do believe that the hype of many science popularizers that focuses on speculations about discoveries in the near future – instead of celebrating the process as such as well as the things whose truth and beauty is already known to us – are really encouraging people to think in these sloppy ways and to be ready to abandon (or avoid) pretty much any scientific knowledge without hesitation. And that's wrong.
So I think it's important to say that we're not really sure about any future discoveries or their importance. We're only sure enough about the insights and paradigm shifts that have already taken place and by their modest extrapolation, we know "almost certainly" that there will be some comparably important results in the future. But they will never "completely undo" everything we have learned so far; new important insights in science never do so.
And that's the memo.