Quirks & Quarks

The Greatest Story Ever Told - Science Edition

Lawrence Krauss' answer to the question 'why are we here?'
A visitor takes a phone photograph of a large back lit image of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Science Museum's 'Collider' exhibition in London, England in 2013. It touches on the discovery of the Higgs boson, or God particle, the realisation of scientist Peter Higgs' theory. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

In 2012, physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing

That's a big, existential question, one that the world's religions try to answer by invoking their particular version of "God." But Dr. Krauss answered it by invoking the scientists whose ideas have been instrumental in shaping our ideas about our universe on its grandest scales. 

His new book is a follow-up to that work. It's called The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far, In the book, Lawrence Krauss is tackling another massive question, why are we here? No less daunting a topic. But this time he turns his attention to the smallest scale of the universe: particle physics. 

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Bob McDonald: Why did you decide to call your book The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far?

Lawrence Krauss: Well, first of all it is the greatest story ever told, in my mind. It's the greatest intellectual journey humans have ever taken, and the "so far" part is really the important part.

The fact that the story of science gets better all the time and the best is yet to come. So while this is a story about how we, since the time of Plato to the present time, have changed our view of the fundamental nature of reality, the really exciting thing is that there are a lot of open questions.

BM: Your book has a huge cast of characters and takes us through the entire history of how we discovered the subatomic world. But you're saying that the last half of the twentieth century was the real key. Take me through some of the key moments.

LK: Most people, when we when we think about the twentieth century, think of that period from 1905 to 1925 as the exciting period when special relativity and quantum mechanics were developed, but really there's an unheralded period from 1950 to about 1975 when everything changed. 

At the beginning of that period we understood one force of nature electromagnetism. And that had been possible through guys like Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman, who I talk about in the book. They produced the best theory we still have, the theory of electromagnetism called quantum electrodynamics. But that's one force and there are four forces in nature. In 1955 it looked as if the other forces were impenetrable. But what happened over that period amazingly, was first of all, the realisation that a single kind of mathematical picture would produce mathematics that would describe all three of those three forces. And in fact by the end by 1975 we had a theory of three of the four forces of nature as full quantum forces, and moreover basically every experiment we've ever been able to do looking at the fundamental force of nature has been explained by that by that theory called the Standard Model.

BM: What do you anticipate might come next in the future of particle physics?

LK: Whenever I'm asked what the next big thing is I always say if I knew I'd be doing it. And so it's hard to know for sure but with LIGO – the gravitational waves – that discovery was amazing. But an even more amazing discovery might be to find gravitational waves from the beginning of time, because if we could detect those waves then we'd get a handle on what the universe looked like when it was a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second old, first of all, but secondly, the physics that govern the universe at that time would be precisely the same physics we're trying to understand with these new colliders.