Hidden Realities: Lawrence Krauss’s Trip to Alaska

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March 2, 2017

Fairbanks, AK

Meeting host:

Society of Physics Students

By:

Georgeanna L Heaverley

SPS Chapter:

When I chose to return to school to study physics, joining the Society of Physics Students has been the highlight of my career at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With an organization that grew from a handful of students to nearly fifteen, our chapter made its presence known. We have done everything from judging local science fairs to organizing large fundraisers, hosting stargazing parties, and even sending 12 students to the 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress in San Francisco. But our most ambitious goal was to bring a renowned physicist to UAF to hold a public lecture, and we wanted to think big.

A past generation of SPS members had brought Nobel laureate Richard Feynman to UAF. We set our sights just as high as our predecessors had. On a tepid evening last May, in the company of the increasingly persistent midnight sun, I sat down with two other SPS members and composed an email to Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a renowned theoretical physicist, author, and educator. 

I first saw Lawrence Krauss on the Science Channel five years ago, on the program How the Universe Works. I could see his affinity for the public understanding of science, and he quickly became my favorite physicist. His documentary with Richard Dawkins and his bestselling book, “A Universe from Nothing,” were the inspiration behind my decision to go back to school as an older student and get a degree in physics.

We invited Krauss to visit Fairbanks and share his expertise, noting that it would greatly inspire us as future physicists, and making sure to mention Professor Feynman’s past trip. I was not sure we would even receive a response. 

Within one hour of sending the invitation, Krauss personally responded. “It is hard to turn down an invitation like this, especially to follow in Feynman’s footsteps,” he wrote. “Let’s try and make this happen.” We were ecstatic. The physicist who had inspired so many of us was considering our request.

From that point forward, the negotiations began. I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I was actually corresponding with Lawrence Krauss. Our chapter started brainstorming how to increase fundraising efforts to pay for his trip. However, it wasn’t long before Dr. Krauss agreed to waive his speaking fee in exchange for the opportunity to go on a polar bear expedition in northern Alaska the following year. We considered it a deal.

Dr. Krauss would arrive the first week of March. Come January, we realized how much work goes into planning something like this. I can’t even count the emails sent or the meetings we had. There were so many details to be worked out.

The only reason this effort came together was the incredible support we received from the university and Fairbanks community. Donations came in, venue fees were waived, and many people dedicated their time to help us plan. It was not just community support that made this a reality, but the drive of the SPS members. No matter how small an act of volunteerism may have seemed to them, it formed this organization into what it is today.

It was 20º below when Dr. Krauss landed in Fairbanks, typical for early March. Our Society’s vice president, Riley, and I met him at the airport. I was shaking from nerves as I shook his hand. We set off on the short ride to the hotel and as we drove away from the lights of the airport Dr. Krauss received the greatest welcome that Alaska could give him—a front row seat to the aurora borealis. He could not contain his awe as the vivid green ribbons danced across the sky. Even Riley and myself, both lifelong Alaskans, agreed they were some of the best lights we had ever seen. We left Dr. Krauss to marvel at one of the crown jewels of Alaska, and made plans to pick him up in the morning.

Dr. Krauss’s public lecture was titled, “Hidden Realities: The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far,” and it was about his upcoming book of the same title. We did not know what to expect for attendance, but we had done a lot of marketing—fliers, announcements, webpage, Facebook posts, and even a PSA on the local radio station. We ended up overflowing the auditorium. Over 500 people turned out to hear the greatest story ever told: our scientific understanding of the universe.

I had the opportunity to introduce Dr. Krauss that night. As I walked on stage and took a deep breath, I realized one of the greatest things our SPS chapter had ever taken on was in fact a reality, a chance for our community to hear a renowned scientist, author, and educator demonstrate the importance of scientific understanding. Calming my racing heart, I thanked everyone for their support, and welcomed Dr. Krauss on stage.

Dr. Krauss was electric as he discussed the progression of humankind’s understanding of the universe and the great minds that got us there. From Plato to Faraday; from Maxwell to Einstein and Feynman – he explained our grasp of the physical phenomena that surrounds us. Relativity, electromagnetic forces, quantum mechanics, he touched on it all.

He explained the importance of the Higgs-Boson in a way everyone could actually understand. He stressed the importance of scientific discovery and how it contributes to our picture of reality. One point that truly resonated with me was a quote from experimental physicist, Robert R. Wilson, the first director of Fermilab. Dr. Krauss told us that when asked by Congress if the new particle accelerator would contribute to our national security, Wilson responded, “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.” These words remind me how important it is to remember this very thing: Scientific inquiry and discovery make our lives worth something.

After the lecture, Dr. Krauss signed autographs, posed for photos, and answered questions for nearly an hour. His passion and enthusiasm for physics shone brighter than the aurora borealis had the night before. After leaving the auditorium, he said the size of the crowd was truly humbling; he did not expect that kind of showing.

The following day was packed with uniquely Alaskan activities. The business part of the trip was over and it was time to have fun. 

First we toured the Cold Regions Research Engineering Laboratory permafrost tunnel. This tunnel was excavated in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was used to study permafrost and technologies relating to mining and building construction. As we climbed down into the musty, foul-smelling, dust-ridden ground we saw remnants of Pleistocene animals and huge chunks of ice wedges, all tens of thousands of years old. We learned a lot, and got absolutely covered in dust while we were at it.

Next came a dog mushing ride. If you have ever seen a group of sled dogs, you know how excited they are to run. Once in harness, they bark and jump, hardly able to stand it until they can hit the trail. But their excitement was no match for Dr. Krauss’s when he learned he would not be riding in the sled, but mushing the dogs himself. Dr. Krauss set off and made his way around the one-mile trail, driving one sled while a UAF vet med student was on the other. We all forgot the subzero temperatures as Dr. Krauss got to do something even longtime Alaskans rarely get to do.

That night we held a potluck for the physics department and Dr. Krauss. My mom and stepfather, who had driven over 400 miles from the Kenai Peninsula to see Dr. Krauss’s lecture, helped organize the potluck.

After everyone had their fill of moose stew, fried chicken, and chocolate cake, we watched a video I had compiled about our SPS chapter, full of pictures and interviews from students. I couldn’t help but tear up as I stood and thanked everyone who had helped make Dr. Krauss’s trip possible.

The end to a perfect day was spent at the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks. In temperatures still well below zero, SPS members joined Dr. Krauss to see stunning ice carvings made by artists from all over the globe. We raced down ice slides and crawled through ice tunnels. We even tromped through an ice house, joking that we would tell everyone that was where we made Dr. Krauss stay for his trip.

As I said goodbye to Lawrence Krauss that night, I thanked him for waiving his speaking fee, for giving such an incredible lecture, and for coming to our frozen town with such a positive attitude, willing to take on the adventure of Alaska.

To all the little SPS organizations out there: Set your sights high. We never could have dreamed we would be hosting such a renowned scientist in our little town in Alaska. These things don’t happen every day. It was certainly hard work to organize this trip, but what we accomplished is proof that you too can do it. All you have to do is ask.