A Whole Lot of Nothing

“Let there be Something,” said Nothing. And there was Something.

In A Universe from Nothing, Professor Lawrence Krauss, the author of The Physics of Star Trek and seven other books and hundreds of scholarly papers, seeks to explain why anything at all exists — how the universe arose from empty space and how empty space itself arose from absolutely nothing, not even empty space. I don’t know if this primal question bothers you, but it has bothered me actively ever since my freshman philosophy course in college, and nascently well before that, when as a kid I would look at a hill, a cornstalk, a car, a dog, the moon, Marilyn Monroe, my own toes — to say nothing of the ocean and the stars — and, as a proto-pseudo-existentialist, say to myself, “Wha?”

Many of the answers to “Wha?” in Krauss’s book will escape the ordinary smart reader’s grasp, I’m afraid. But the book still evokes a great measure of wonder about the cosmos and admiration for those, like the author, who are trying to explain it to us. “We are all stardust,” he tells us, and explains clearly how that is so. He compares the nothingness from which everything has proceeded to “how it felt to be before you were conceived.” After struggling through thickets of particle physics* and anti-matter and dark energy, the reader often stumbles into these clearings of common sense mixed with astonishment. You have an inkling about how particles can pop into existence from empty space and out again, how the asymmetry of the Big Bang was necessary to our universe’s existence (that makes common sense to me, because if it had been perfectly symmetrical, nothing could have stuck to anything else), how in a “closed” universe if you could look “far enough in one direction, you would see the back of your own head.”

Krauss also makes a comprehensible case that we happen to be living in exactly the right — the only — eon in which humans will be able to apprehend the origin of the universe and its fate, because it is the only eon in which scientists will have been able to detect radiation remnants of the Big Bang and thus draw conclusions about what happened at the start. In the distant future, and I mean distant, when astronomers “on distant planets…look out at the cosmos, essentially everything we can now see, all 400 billion galaxies currently inhabiting our visible universe, will have disappeared!” Krauss goes on to say, quixotically, perhaps, “I have tried to use this argument with Congress to urge the funding of cosmology now, while we still have time to observe what we can!” Can’t you just see John Boehner and Harry Reid taking up this cause?

But still, even if you are a wide-ranging, generalist reader of above-average intelligence, large portions of this book will flee you faster than the most distant stars and galaxies are fleeing the nothing from which they were evidently conjured:  “The pattern of density fluctuations that result after inflation — arising, I should stress, from the quantum fluctuations  in otherwise empty space — turns out to be precisely in agreement with the observed pattern of cold spots and hot spots on large scales in the cosmic background radiation.”

And for all the close study I gave to this impressive and exciting and often funny work, I still don’t really understand how something came from nothing. Well, I do get, a little, how particles can emerge suddenly from what we think of as empty space, for empty space turns out to be “broiling with energy,” as Krauss puts it. (So it’s not really empty — right? It’s not really nothing?) But how empty space comes from nothing at all — not even empty space — here my comprehension winks out of existence.

According to Scientific American, Lawrence Krauss is among this nation’s very few “public intellectuals.” The Physics of Star Trek sold a quarter of a million copies, and Krauss has won many major awards and other honors in his field. He is also the founder of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. According to its mission statement, this program “is a transdisciplinary initiative that nurtures research, energizes teaching, and builds partnerships, offering new possibilities for exploring the most fundamental of questions: the origins of the universe, life, consciousness, culture, and human existence” (but is apparently not a program that discourages mission-statementese).
And in his public-intellectual role, before (and during and after) Krauss tries to tell us in his book how the cosmos originated, he tells us that God had, um, nothing to do with it.  The first words in the book: “In the interest of full disclosure right at the outset I must admit that I am not sympathetic to the conviction that creation requires a creator, which is at the basis of all the world’s religions.” Near the end: “God seems to me a rather facile semantic solution to the deep question of creation.”

“OK, OK!” some readers might feel like saying. Some might be relieved if certain public intellectuals stopped beating a dead deity. The great mass of humanity are believers, and — sadly, in my opinion — these scholars aren’t going to change that situation anytime soon, or soon enough. But in a conversation I had with Krauss, it became clear that he still regards this anti-theist (note: not atheist) mission as crucial to the possibility of human progress and greater knowledge. He said, “The last fifteen years have seen an amazing increase in the understanding we have of the universe, how it began and what its nature is, and I want to motivate people to know about that.” He continued, “Like cosmology, the global problems we face are very complex, and we need to approach them empirically, not theologically, if we are ever going to solve them.” When I asked him why the universe — even multiple universes — couldn’t be Someone Else’s video game, he said “We can’t rule out the possibility of some intelligence building the universe, but we have absolutely no evidence of that. If I looked up into the night sky and saw the stars being rearranged before my eyes, that would be a different story.”

A Universe from Nothing includes some wonderful incidental human analogues to the something-from-nothing  question. The first person to propose the Big Bang theory, or something like it, was a priest, George LeMaitre, in 1927, after serving as an artilleryman in the First World War. Edwin Hubble was a lawyer before he became a cosmologist. Harlow Shapley dropped out of school in the fifth grade and when he finally went to Princeton picked astronomy to concentrate on because it was the first course listed in the catalogue. Alex Vilenkin emigrated to the United States from the USSR and worked as a night watchman while he studied.

And of course we are always surrounded by somethings-from-nothings, at least metaphorically. This book, in all its rigor and passion, didn’t exist before Laurence Krauss wrote it. This review, in all its whatever, didn’t exist before I wrote it. I didn’t exist in any way at all before I did, and neither did you, before you did. Looked at from this point of view, everything is a non-religious miracle — which is the constant, invigorating refrain of  A Universe from Nothing.

*Here is the only particle-physics joke I know: The bartender says, “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t serve faster-than-the-speed-of-light neutrinos in here.” A faster-than-the-speed-of-light neutrino walks into a bar.