From the Origin of Art, to the End of Humanity

21:06 minutes

Albert Einstein once wrote, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Back in April 2011, Ira sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about the mysterious connection between art and science with three big thinkers: novelist Cormac McCarthy, filmmaker Werner Herzog, and physicist Lawrence Krauss. Their conversation spanned disciplines and millennia. McCarthy explained why he takes comfort in mankind’s failure to predict the future, Herzog contemplated the birth of human culture (one of the subjects of his 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams), and Krauss wondered whether self-aware machines would one day make humans “irrelevant.”

Segment Guests

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is the director of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). He is based in Los Angeles, California.

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is author of The Road (Knopf, 2006) and All the Pretty Horses (Knopf, 1992). He is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss is director and foundation professor at The ASU Origins Project at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.  His latest book is The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far. Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Albert Einstein once wrote, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Well, back in April 2011, I sat down for an enlightening conversation with three big thinkers about art, science, and the mysterious place where they intersect.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog, novelist Cormac McCarthy, and physicist Lawrence Krauss join me from Tempe, Arizona, where they gathered for Arizona State University’s Origins Science and Culture festival. Our conversation was really wide ranging. It took us from the Chauvet cave in France, the setting for Herzog’s next film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, to the frightening dystopia of the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, to the outer reaches of the cosmos. We’ll be taking your calls this hour, but you can tweet us at @SciFri.

Our conversation kicked off when I asked Lawrence Krauss where he saw the intersection of art and science.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, to me it’s kind of obvious. They ask the same questions. Science addresses– really what it does at its best is force us to reassess our place in the cosmos. Who are we? Where are we going? And those are the very same questions that you get in art, literature, music. Every time you read a wonderful book or see wonderful film, you come out of it with a different perspective of yourself. And they come together in some sense in the notion of origins. Origins really is one place where it seems to me those two worlds connect the closest. Because we all wonder about our origins in different ways. And it’s the forefront of science in almost every field. And yet of course it’s really what asking ourselves when we think about literature and art.

IRA FLATOW: Werner, you always seem to have that kind of connection in the films that you make. Certainly you get into the science, and then you get into a larger question.

WERNER HERZOG: Well, in some of the films, yes. But it doesn’t really apply to everything I do. But a good example of what you’re alluding to is the most recent film in the cave in southern France where you really can observe the origins of the modern human soul so to speak. Art, figurative representation, there was music nearby. Ivory flutes were found. And just phenomenal things that did not occur to Neanderthal men who roamed the landscape at the same time 32,000 years ago. So there are profound questions and, of course, profound mysteries remaining.

IRA FLATOW: Cormac McCarthy, most people may not know this, but I understand you’re very interested in science also. Tell us about your relationship, for example, with the Santa Fe Institute.

CORMAC MCCARTHY: Well, I met Murray Gell-Mann about 25 years ago. And I’d been interested in science, at the time. Particularly physics. And I was invited to come to the Santa Fe Institute, where I’ve been for about a dozen years. But my connection with them was even before that. I think it I think it kind of helps you to stay honest. You’re talking about things which are factual. Things about which there is agreement. It’s kind of hard to get agreement about the arts. But if you’re talking about a theory in physics, I guess, well, it’s either true or it’s not. I kind of liked that.

IRA FLATOW: We have to take a short break. When we come back, a novelistic, a physicist, and a filmmaker contemplate the end of humanity. More from my 2011 conversation with Werner Herzong, Cormac McCarthy, and Lawrence Krauss. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You’re listening this hour to a conversation from April 2011 with novelist Cormac McCarthy, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and filmmaker Werner Herzog talking about the mysterious intersection of art and science.

Herzog was fresh off the release of his documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, filmed in the Chauvet cave in southern France, a stunning meditation on art, science, and human origins. We won’t be taking your calls this hour, but you can get in the conversation by tweeting at @scifri. And our conversation picks up with my question to Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Road. Cormac, when you hang around scientists, do they make you optimistic or pessimistic?


CORMAC MCCARTHY: Well, some of my friends would probably tell you that making me pessimistic would be a difficult chore indeed. But I’m pessimistic about a lot of things. But as Lars has quoted me as saying, there is no reason to be miserable about it.


IRA FLATOW: That’s one of my favorite quotes!

CORMAC MCCARTHY: The other thing we talked about a few minutes ago was how bad we are at prognostication. So the fact that I take a pretty dreary view the future is cheering because, I think, chances are that I’m wrong.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, certainly reading The Road, one would hope so. That you’re wrong about that future scenario.

WERNER HERZOG: Well, I think a Cormac is not wrong because it’s quite evident that human beings as a species will vanish and fairly quickly. When I say quickly, it may be in 2,000, 3,000 years. Maybe 30,000 years. Maybe 300,000. But not much more, because we are much more vulnerable than other species, despite a certain amount of intelligence. It doesn’t make me nervous that fairly soon we’ll have a planet which doesn’t contain human beings.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, it’s interesting you say that. Because I flip back and forth as a scientist between– I think– there are days when– I don’t know whether I’ve imagined a future quite as bleak as The Road. But there may be. Because I think humanity as an ensemble hasn’t demonstrated a lot of intelligence about behaving in a way that globally impacts on the planet healthy way. But at the same time, I agree with Werner, but I’m not so sure we’ll vanish because we destroy ourselves– we may vanish– what makes– we seem to think–

WERNER HERZOG: I’m not speaking of self-destruction, which could happen, of course. But there are many events thinkable out there which would instantly wipe us out.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Oh, absolutely. That’s likely to happen. That will inevitably happen, anyway. But I think there may be a rosier future. Just let me throw– one thing– I’ve talked about the fact that we imagine we are the pinnacle of evolution. But I doubt that’s the case. And in fact, I think it’s quite clear to me, in the long run, that I think artifi– computers will one day be– if we persist as a species to develop them– will one day become self-aware, and conscious. And it’ll be obvious to me that they’ll probably be much superior to us . And biology will have to, in some way, adapt to them. And, you know, the movies always show the computers as being bad. But I don’t know why that would be the case, if their self-aware. I doubt they’ll be any worse than we are. And my friend Frank Wilczek asked, well, he wants to know if they will do physics the same way.

So I think we may disappear as a species just because we become irrelevant, as well as being destroyed. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s just that may be the future. And I think where I really would really agree with what– with certainly Werner said in some senses, we shouldn’t be– or Cormac– we shouldn’t be depressed if we disappear. We should be thrilled that we’re here right now. I see no purpose in the universe from science. And that doesn’t depress me. That just means we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a question here from a listener who called in asking about both of you. And he’s wondering where some of your ideas come from. And he gave us this little phone clip.

LISTENER 1: Hello, this is Kieron in Galway. And my question is to both Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog. And both of you have created works of art in which the universe is depicted as harsh, unforgiving, and indifferent to human concerns. To what extent is such vision shaped by scientific ideas? And does complexity science offer us a different view of our place in the universe?

IRA FLATOW: There you go. Cormac, what is complexity science?

CORMAC MCCARTHY: Well, we talked about that coming over. I don’t think you can ask any 10 people in science what complexity is and get a consistent view. As far as painting the world as grim, I don’t know. If you look at classical literature, the core of literature is the idea of tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you. But tragedy is at the core of human experience, and it’s what we have to deal with. That’s what makes life difficult. And that’s what we want to know about. It’s what we want to know how to deal with. It’s unavoidable. There’s nothing you can do to forestall it. So how do you deal with it? And all classical literature has to do with things that happen to people that they would really rather hadn’t.

IRA FLATOW: Werner, let’s talk about your latest film.

WERNER HERZOG: I’d like to answer the question first because– part of the question first because– there was an interesting aspect in it at the end. Our place in the universe. Well, it is here. And that’s the place we have and nothing else. Everything else is unfriendly. We cannot flee from our planet. I mean, go to any other planet in the solar system. It’s just not inviting. And the next planet from there, the next star out there is only four and a half light years away, but with the fastest speed we could ever reach so far, it would take 110,000 years. Just to go there. Hundreds and hundreds of generations. They wouldn’t even know where they were going. There would be incest and madness and murder and whatever en route. So it’s not pleasant to move, and Lawrence I hope you agree, we cannot dissolve into particles of light, like in Star Trek, and beam ourselves somewhere.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: I wish we could. When I’m at an airport terminal I wish I could.

WERNER HERZOG: This is our place. This is our place and we better take care of it. And sometimes, of course, you can be disgruntled in a way, for example. I’ve worked in the jungle and after real hardship I came to the conclusion, yes, I love the jungle. However, against my better judgment.


IRA FLATOW: Well, your new film shows the triumph of the human. A synopsis– Werner– for people just tuning in, what would you say the film is?

WERNER HERZOG: Where it is looking into a deep abyss of time, with a camera. Going into the cave. Probably nobody will ever be allowed again because I they will shut it down like Lascaux, the most famous so far. Because too many human beings in there left a mold– the exhalation, the breath, of humans left mold on the wall– that cannot be controlled easily. So it’s just a penetration into an abyss

IRA FLATOW: You could visit them with naval re-breathers.


And where are they located?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: It’s one cave with two branches. It is in the south of France. Not very far from the Grande River in the gorge of the Ardeche river. You have to check it out on a map but it’s Southern France.

IRA FLATOW: And they believe– from watching your film– they believe there may be more of these caves.

WERNER HERZOG: Well, we can speculate. Maybe. Hopefully. Would be great, but we don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: I want to play a little clip from your film. This clip describes the reaction of one of the scientists talking about his experience in this magnificent cave.

SCIENTIST: The first time I entered to show the cave, I had chance to get in during five days. And it was so powerful that every night, I was dreaming of lioins. And every day was the same shock for me. It was an emotion of shock. I mean, I’m a scientist, but a human too. And after five days, I decided not to go back in the cave because I needed time just to relax and take time to absorb it. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Werner, who was that scientist?

WERNER HERZOG: Well, a younger-generation archaeologist. It was very fascinating because he started his career as a circus man. And I immediately asked him, a lion tamer? No. He was a juggler and a unicyclist. Very, very fascinating people there.

IRA FLATOW: Lawrence, you have a reaction to that?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, yeah. I think it’s really related to what that scientist was saying. In some sense– you know, he was– what you don’t realize is sometimes when you try and confront the real world, as a scientist, it’s terrifying. Because it forces you to throw away a lot of things you believe. And sometimes, you have to go away from it. That’s what I mean, I think. The convergence of science and art. In the sense– that what that science of was saying, it was confronted with the reality of those caves. It was difficult for him to deal with. And even as a theoretical physicist, sometimes just alone at night, confronted with the possibly the real universe might actually correspond to something you’re thinking about is terrifying.

WERNER HERZOG: Of course it is, because it’s not friendly. Just imagine being sucked into a black hole. Or even landing on the sun, which looks so benign and beautiful. And there’s hundreds of thousands of atomic explosions boiling every second.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: In some ways, we have to realize once again– we have to confront our own– in some sense, an unfriendly universe potentially– but also, our own insignificance in a cosmic sense. And what significance we make of ourselves is it, to me, part of it is our ability to– this amazing gift we have to appreciate the universe and imagine it not just as it is, but as it might be, in order to understand ourselves better. That’s why I find this connection–

IRA FLATOW: Do you think when you bring scientists and artists and writers together, they actually inspire each other? Give each other ideas?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, these two gentlemen have inspired me and for many years in many different ways. So there’s no doubt about it. I can say I’m inspired. They can speak for themselves.

WERNER HERZOG: For me, for example, a film like Fitzcarraldo moved a huge ship over a mountain in the Amazon jungle, actually started out in Brittany, the coast of– Northwestern coast of France. Where you have dolmans in Mineas Neolithic huge slabs of stone erected, but there are thousands of them in parallel rows. And I was sitting there, and I tried to figure out how would I do it as a Neolithic person without the modern machinery. And of course I came up with a method, which in essence, is how I moved the ship over the mountain. And it made me very angry because a psuedo scientist had postulated that the stones were so heavy that only ancient astronauts from different planets could have done it. And I thought, this is so completely and utterly idiotic it just itched me. And I wanted to find out. And it led to a way how to move the ship over a mountain.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from PRI. Cormac, have you ever– being there at the Santa Fe Institute, have you ever with your great facility with the English language find yourself turning some of those research papers into better ones? Before their–

CORMAC MCCARTHY: Oh, I do. I fight with them all the time. I say, you have to get rid of these exclamation points and the semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: I have to say, that Cormac– we’ve spoke on the phone about my book. And he said, I’ve got it and I– there’s some suggestions I want to make the next edition, but you have to get rid of all your exclamation marks.

WERNER HERZOG: But we should go straight at Lawrence’s jugular, because only two days ago, a day ago, there was reports of a mysterious finding, possibly even a new form of force in the universe. And we just want to know what do you think about that.

IRA FLATOW: Lawrence, you want to fill us in on that?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: It’s a fascinating– it’s a fascinating, tantalizing bump seen at the Fermi– [INAUDIBLE] a statistical bump. And I suspect– and if it’s true, it means much of what we think about the fundamental forces of nature is wrong. Which is probably not true. And we were just talking about that before. It’s exciting. But we have to realize that we have to wait and see. And most of our ideas are wrong. And so the most exciting thing would be is if this bump that shouldn’t be there, is there. Because it means most of our ideas are wrong. And if you’re a theoretical physicist, that’s exactly what you want to be the case, as it means a lot more out there to discover.

WERNER HERZOG: I hope they’re wrong, because I feel comfortable with the explanation of forces.

IRA FLATOW: Lawrence, what do you mean by a bump that’s there?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, what the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory does it in the Tevatron– which was until the Large Hadron Collider, the most energetic accelerator in the world– is bangs together protons and antiprotons. Together, smashes them together and sees what comes out. Measuring the energy of the particles and their charges. And if a particle is created that lives for a little while and then decays, what you’ll see is a lot of particles coming out, but all with the energy of associated with the mass of the particle that decays. So if you’re looking to discover new particles, you look at the energy of the particles coming out. And you see if they all happen to lie in a very small region. That means there’s probably some intermediate particle that was created. That lives for a while and then decays. And that’s statistically what they’ve seen at a tantalizing level. The Large Hadron Collider of course will explore it.

IRA FLATOW: It doesn’t fit theory anywhere?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: It doesn’t fit theory anywhere. And in fact, the interesting thing is that Werner hopes it’s wrong. Because I kind of feel like him in the jungle. Because I want it to be wrong, even though I know it’s probably not good for me.

IRA FLATOW: Gentlemen, we’ve run out of time. Can we invite you back next time, same place? Same station? OK, we’ll talk. Thank you all.

Werner Herzog is a film director, producer and screenwriter. He is a director of over 50 films, Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World.

Cormac McCarthy, what can I say about him? He’s a novelist and a playwright. His books include The Road, No Country For Old Men, All The Pretty Horses. And now it sounds like he knows more about science than we thought he did. He’s letting us know about that.

Lawrence Krauss is a physicist, foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins project. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. We will meet you back here a year from now.


IRA FLATOW: Cormac McCarthy, Lawrence Krauss, and Werner Herzog, speaking with me back in April of 2011. Some big ideas from the SciFri archives as we head into 2016. Oh yeah, and that mysterious bump Lawrence described at the Fermilab. It was not a new particle. Werner Herzog got his way.

Charles Berquist is our director. A senior producer is Christopher Intagliata. Alexa Lim is our associate producer. Our Sciarts producer is Annie Minoff. Luke Groskin is our video producer. Rich Kim, our technical director. Sarah Fishman our engineer at the controls here at the studios of our production partners, the City University of New York. Wishing you a very happy new year from all of us at Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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