Dr Doom’s warning for Australia
IF YOU had a job that once belonged to Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer you'd probably feel the weight of expectation, right?
Well so does theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss.
Among many other things, Prof Krauss is the chairman of leadership body for a group of the world's most accomplished science and security leaders known as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
It's a unique post that was established by the aforementioned Father of Relativity. And the man seen by history as largely responsible for the atomic bomb was the group's first chairman.
"I'm kind of flabbergasted that I'm chair of the board now," Prof Krauss told news.com.au.
The fundamental purpose of the board is to preside over something called the Doomsday Clock.
The symbolic time piece was created in 1947 as a way to highlight the threat of global nuclear war but has since grown to involve some of the world's greatest minds - including 15 Nobel Laureates - who meet to examine the urgent challenges facing humanity.
"The purpose of the Doomsday Clock is to provide a graphical way for people to suddenly think about these existential threats," Prof Krauss said. "People tend to avoid thinking about these existential threats and don't talk about them."
Once or twice a year, the board gathers to discuss the state of the world and consider issues like climate change, bio-security threats and even artificial intelligence.
The closer the time is to midnight, the closer we are to the proverbial doomsday scenario.
The most optimistic the clock has ever been was 17 minutes to midnight, where it sat for four years from 1991 following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the signing of the first strategic arms reduction treaty.
Conversely, the clock's closet approach to the dreaded vertical axis was in 1953 after the United States and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other. At that time, the clock was placed at two minutes to midnight. Earlier this year, the clock was moved forward to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.
"People can dispute whether it's really two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, whether it's more dangerous now then it was 25 year ago, but what's really important is the direction," Prof Krauss said.
"If we move the clock forward it means we think the world is becoming more dangerous."
And if the world is in fact becoming more dangerous, he believes it's because of a failure in political leadership among the world's major democracies, including ours.
'IT'S HAPPENING IN AUSTRALIA'
Prof Krauss is the Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and a staunch public advocate of science. But he is growing increasingly frustrated by the ideological opponents of certain fields of science.
He pointed to a recent example in the US when climate scientists were denied the chance to speak at an event by the country's Environmental Protection Agency - a move that drew heavy criticism from the scientific community as an act of climate change censorship.
"I was waiting for that kind of censorship to happen, and it's happening," Prof Krauss said, referring to the presidency of Donald Trump and the fact he installed a climate denier as the head of the EPA.
It's against this backdrop of so-called "post-truth" that Prof Krauss champions the need for science to inform public policy if the world is to progress in the right direction.
"Science is the way we get information about the world, science is the process of sceptical inquiry, of testing ideas, and we need to instil that in the public.
"When we start ignoring the real world we make bad public policy, and it's happening in Australia as well as the United States," he said.
It's been enough to make him consider running for public office but he seems unsure about just how wise that would actually be if he wants to spur change.
"I still periodically get angry enough that I think maybe [I will enter politics]," he said.
THE ILLUSION OF REALITY
Prof Krauss is the author of several best-selling books, including The Physics of Star Trek, A Universe from Nothing and his most recent work The Greatest Story Ever Told ... So Far.
His writings deal with fundamental mysterious of our world such as dark matter, the nature of the universe, and our place in it.
And it's these big questions (and some of the answers) which he hopes to explore with the Australian public when he heads down under in May for a speaking tour alongside evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
The pair have worked together extensively and while there is no set agenda for what they intend to discuss with audiences, if you do head along, you'll need to bring your thinking caps. Or at least be prepared to have your perception of reality challenged.
"The everyday universe we experience is an illusion, the real universe of fundamental scales is vastly different and is actually, on a fundamental level, incompatible with our existence," Prof Krauss said.
"In the last 400 years science has allowed us to cut through this illusion of reality, to discover the real world underneath."
In just the past few years, scientists have confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle, discovered gravitational waves (once theorised by Albert Einstein), and observed the collision of two neutron stars which unlocked further secrets of the universe.
The impact of these discoveries may seem abstract, but for Prof Krauss they couldn't be more applicable to every single one of us.
"They're changing the way we think about the universe and in turn - and this is what's important to me - changing the way we think about ourselves," he said.
Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins will be in Australia in May 2018 for the Think Inc. event Science in the Soul.