A Universe From Nothing Lawrence M. Krauss

As far back as I can remember I’ve often contemplated why there is something rather than nothing.  And by nothing, I don’t mean empty space, because even that would be something.  I finally decided that nothing can’t exist.  That it’s impossible for “nothing” to exist, because if it could, we wouldn’t be here, and there would be nothing.  I concluded that reality is all the possible some-things coming into being. 

When I first saw a copy A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss I wondered if he had a scientific theory to explain why nothing cannot exist to support my own philosophical theory.  Sad to say, he doesn’t actual work with the same concept of nothing as I imagined it, but I think he’s getting close.  Theology has always been burdened with the question that intellectual pesky kids eventual ask, “Who created God?”  Smart kids will also ask scientists, “What created the Big Bang?”  Sooner or later the ontological question has to be:  “How did something come from nothing?”

Cosmology has always invaded the territory of theology and Krauss does not shy away from this conflict.  In fact, Christopher Hitchens had promised to write the introduction to A Universe From Nothing, but he died too soon, so Krauss got Richard Dawkins to write the afterward, which uses the science in this book to attack theology rather sharply.

It seems like every popular cosmology book I read has to reiterate all the cosmological discoveries since Edwin Hubble figured out that nebulae are galaxies existing outside of the Milky Way, and they are speeding away from us.  For a short 224 page book, Krauss gets the background covered quickly and moves on to the title topic, but it requires the reader to grasp quite a bit of recent research.  To understand nothing requires understanding a lot of some-things.

Now here is where I wish I had the writing skills of Brian Greene, my current favorite science writer.  Of course, if I had such writing skills I’d end up writing a book much like what Lawrence M. Krauss wrote – however, I’d still like to summarize what I learned from reading A Universe from Nothing.  I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve read on cosmology, or documentaries I’ve seen, but I feel the need to summarize just to get things straight in my head by listing them on paper.

And if Krauss and Dawkins are right, and cosmology deposes theology, then the average person needs to learn a lot to catch up with science.  Cosmology is science’s Book of Genesis.   But unlike the Bible myths, cosmology explains how the universe came about by studying the evidence, a lot of evidence, a whole lot of evidence.  And for some concepts, like the Big Bang, there are multiple paths that prove the theory that makes the scientific research more and more definite.  This is a lot of learn and its no wonder that most people prefer the Bible to answer their origin questions.

Here’s quick and dirty study guide to modern cosmology.  The more you know will make understanding A Universe From Nothing easier to understand and comprehend.  Also, it’s impossible to understand cosmology without understanding particle physics.

Now this is a lot to learn, and even after reading many books I only have a vague layman’s idea of what’s going on, but what’s fascinating is how everything interconnects.  Reading A Universe From Nothing just inspires me to read more, to keep putting more puzzle pieces together to get the big picture. 

Just take what we’ve learned about the cosmic microwave background radiation in my lifetime.  Reading The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg and The Very First Light by John C. Mather tells the long story of how the CMB was theorized, discovered, and measured to finer and finer accuracy.  The Very First Light is about building the COBE spacecraft to measure the CMB.  Then I read about the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe that studied the CMB with even more accuracy.  Then there was Planck spacecraft that explores even deeper.  If you aren’t familiar with the cosmic microwave background radiation then I beg you to study it.  It’s a near perfect example of how science works.   Just look at the list of the major experiments studying the CMB.  This history shows how experiments are constantly refined and evolved to find more evidence, or how to look for evidence from other sources, or from other approaches.  Science is a beautiful Chinese puzzle where the pieces interlock in elegant ways.

Don’t worry about not knowing mathematics to enjoy reading about cosmology.  Most of the popular science books are about the men who invented the mathematics, and their stories are told by the experimental evidence.  Their numbers are validated by real world experiments and applied engineering.  Did you know that GPS systems in your smartphones depend on mathematics that involve relativity?  Without Einstein’s equations they wouldn’t work.

Back to the book – does Krauss explain how something comes from nothing?  No.  But he does explain the current theories on dark energy, which suggests that powerful forces come from apparently empty space.  Of course, once we understand how dark energy, and dark matter work, they won’t seem like nothing anymore – they will be some-things.

The nothing Krauss is talking about are just some-things that science can’t see right now.  The nothing I say can’t exist is pushed further back into the unknown, into the multiverse.  Like the kid who asked who created God, I’m asking what created the multiverse, but if science could tell me, there would still be another layer of unknown to explore.  It’s still turtles all the way down.

Other Reviews:

JWH – 2/24/12

The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy

If you are the kind of person who believes that science explores reality and would love to catch up on  the latest explorations in cosmology and subatomic particles, then The Edge of Physics (2010) by Anil Anathaswamy is the book for you.  For years I’ve wanted to know where the big experiments are taking place, and even daydreamed of being a science journalist whose nine-to-five job would be to visit them, well Anil Ananthaswamy has my dream job.

The Edge of Physics is mostly a travel book, and Ananthaswamy even has photos for each of the sites he visited at his web site, collected chapter by chapter.  What Anil has done, and I hope he pardons my familiarity, because typing his last name is work, is weave science history in with his travelogue and then explain what each experimental site he visits hopes to achieve. 

To enjoy this book does not require a deep understanding of experimental physics or math, just a sense of wonder.  I’m praying to Einstein that  PBS’s NOVA makes a multipart series based on this book.  The average person is afraid of science, and Anil really goes a long way to making it accessible.  Anyone who hates that we’re spending billions on theoretical science needs to read this book too, because it makes you wish they’d spend billions more, because in the end, Anil helps us understand the mysteries that are remaining to be discovered.  And I hope I live long enough to hear those results reported too.

On the day I started this book I experienced a bit of serendipity.  The first chapter is about Mount Wilson and why the work it did back in the 1910s and 1920s is so important to the work being done today.  While listening to the book on audio I wished I could see pictures of what Anil was writing about.  Well, my wished was grant that very day, because that night NOVA started a two part Hunting the Edge of Space that featured photos and films from the early days of the Mount Wilson Observatory.  This documentary overlapped wonderfully with The Edge of Physics

Now, if NOVA would only film the other chapters.  Most people are familiar with visual telescopes but how many have heard of a neutrino telescope?  One of the more adventuresome trips Anil makes is to Lake Baikal, to where scientists brave the Siberian winter to build an underwater telescope beneath the ice of a large freshwater lake.  Anil also visits two sites in Antarctica, Chile, Hawaii, South Africa, deep underground in Northern Minnesota, India, and of course Switzerland where the LHC is located.

I read Sky and Telescope every month but I never knew there was so many big telescopes around the world.  I wish someone would build a web site for telescopes like they have for the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites.  And I also wish someone would build the Top 500 largest science research sites.  And reading The Edge of Physics I could imagine a new tourist industry based on visiting scientific research.  I don’t have the money to take up that hobby right now, but I’m inspired to see if I can find web sites for all the places Anil visited in his book:

All this travel is glamorous but the real value of The Edge of Physics is what Anil reports about the status of all these experiments.  He really is trying to show his readers where the edge of physics lies, and what that means.  I can’t summarize that, you need to read the book, but if you haven’t read any science books in a few years, you’ll be surprised by how far science has gotten to explaining all of reality.  We are far from finished, but wow, scientists are hot on the trail of explaining almost everything.  Research in particle physics, dark matter, dark energy, cosmic background radiation, string theory, multiverses, radio astronomy, neutrino astronomy, are converging towards filling in missing puzzle pieces. 

It’s like doing a Sudoku puzzle.  Finding any one number can solve problems in all nine quadrants.  Breakthroughs at any one of these sites Anil visits means more evidence for the other sites.  Everything is interrelated.  I’d love to be able to list all the areas of research covered in this book with hyperlinks and explanations, but I’d have to write a book and Anil Ananthaswamy has already done that for us.  Be sure an visit Anil’s blog for newer reports.

JWH – 4/24/10