Reality Based

Remember those terrific scenes in "Independence Day" in which the alien ships appeared and tidal waves topped the Empire State Building in New York City, while out west the office complexes of Los Angeles crashed to the streets just before the city fell into the Pacific? But, you say, which movie were "you"watching -- those things didn't happen!Well, you're right, they didn't, but according to Lawrence Krauss, the laws of physics say they "should"have. The tidal forces exerted by the looming Mother Ship on both the earth's oceans and its crust would have caused the aforementioned catastrophes on both the East and West Coast.Krauss gets a kick out of rewriting science fiction scenarios, from "Star Trek" to "The X-Files". The writer -- chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University -- first focused on this theme in "The Physics of Star Trek", published in 1995; he has moved on to confront other cultural icons in "Beyond Star Trek: Physics from Alien Invasions to the End of Time" (Basic Books/HarperCollins), published last month. He points out how much of what we absorb as futurist reality is in fact just plain impossible, or in some cases at least improbable. He's not grumpy about it -- rather he has fun tweaking the scripts and using them to teach readers about the real possibilities and wonders made possible by the laws of physics.Krauss finds that human speculation about aliens is rampant in our society, and could explain the popularity of shows like "The X-Files", which he clearly enjoys and even salutes for the character of Dana Scully, "[who] was trained as a physicist -- no less! -- before her stint in medical school, and her gender constitutes a wonderful reversal, as far as the usual run of TV is concerned. I will be forever grateful to the series' producers for giving us this role model of an intelligent, attractive, and relentlessly pragmatic female physicist."Krauss approaches the imaginings of science fiction with the question -- "What would be required for [travel to other galaxies, ESP, telekinesis] to exist?" and then moves to speculation based not on screenwriters' space dreams, but solid physics. Look, he says, if the operation of thought processes ("brain waves") can be detected, as can the faintest electromagnetic waves from the far reaches of space, why can't we detect those waves that would almost certainly have to be involved in communication labeled extra-sensory perception? Yet all experiments geared to measuring such activity have come up empty. Similarly, to imagine long-term space travel involves questions of ship design, fuel, speed limits for things other than light and electromagnetic energy, and the human life-span, all of which rule out the standard "Star Trek" episode as a model for human endeavor.While Krauss has fun with the "reality" posited by science fiction, he's not amused by other varieties of non-science that inhabit our culture, particularly if someone is exploiting those lacking a scientific grounding. Condemning astrology, he cites its historical origins -- "In yet another example of our profound ability to imagine ourselves at the center of the universe, the Alexandrian astrologers determined that the planets governed human affairs. Astrology is neither internally consistent nor supported by experiment." He cites his favorite example of astrological "acuity" -- presented with the horoscope of a famous serial killer, several people identified it as their own reading, saying it characterized their specific personalities.You might think Krauss would also have a field day with the Hale-Bopp believers, who died in their conviction that a spaceship would transport them to heaven, yet he says, "... I must admit to seeing little difference between the fanciful myths of true believers of the Heaven's Gate variety and those of more orthodox fundamentalists. For example, it seems just as likely to me that there was a spacecraft hidden behind Hale-Bopp as that an ancient patriarch named Noah sheltered all known species of animals from a globe-girdling Flood in a giant ark." It's clear that Krauss would have people replace Fox Mulder's mantra "I want to believe" with the more reliable "I want to know."In Krauss' new book, my favorite chapter is eight, which discusses what will happen to the future Earth, and includes a description of the workings of the sun that is -- well, stellar. But even before the sun's evolution causes it to swell, overtake, and incinerate our planet, several other possibilities exist for the extinction of Earth's life, including human folly. Krauss ends the chapter thus: "One of the most remarkable astrophysical facts I know of is that essentially every atom inside our bodies was once inside an exploding star. The carbon that permeates our bodies, the oxygen and nitrogen we breathe, were not around when matter first formed. These elements were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars. In order for us to exist, it was necessary for generations of massive stars to live and die. During the fiery supernovae that marked the death of such objects, all the heavy elements that make up everything we see around us were spewed out into the cos!mic nothingness ...." In other words, we are the stuff of stars. What a wonderful reality.


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