A Guide to Understanding Nothing

A Guide to Understanding Nothing

Posted  by Daniel Honan


How could the universe be created out of nothing? This question has so perplexed mankind that we have come up with a fantastic assortment of myths to explain the how and the why of existence.

The stories that tend to resonate with us employ metaphors that are based on human scale, or the observable world around us. Quantum mechanics doesn’t offer that. And yet, “the universe doesn’t care about our common sense,” says Lawrence Krauss, whose book A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing led to one of the fiercest intellectual battle royals of the past year, which Krauss attributes to his alleged encroachment into the field of philosophy.

What is nothing?

The simplest kind of nothing is “an infinite empty space,” Krauss tells Big Think. This type of nothing, the dark infinite void of the Bible, is not filled with any particles or radiation. It’s just nothing. However, due to the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity, Krauss says, “we now know that empty space is a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence at every moment.”

Krauss says the idea of “empty space with stuff in it” and the idea of “empty space with nothing in it” are actually “different versions of the same thing.” We have come to understand a more complicated version of nothing because the laws of quantum mechanics guarantee that if you wait long enough, nothing will eventually produce something.

But if this is true, where did space come from? As Krauss points out, “once you apply the laws of quantum mechanics to gravity itself, then space itself becomes a quantum mechanical variable and fluctuates in and out of existence and you can literally, by the laws of quantum mechanics, create universes.”

What about the laws of physics? The laws of nature? These laws themselves are somehow something. “That is not at all obvious or clear or necessary, says Krauss. In fact, “we now have good reason to believe that even the laws of physics themselves are kind of arbitrary.”
For instance, there may be an infinite number of universes, and in each universe that has been created, the laws of physics are different. “The laws themselves come into existence when the universe comes into existence,” Krauss says. In other words, there is no pre-existing fundamental law. Anything that can happen, does happen.

So what are we left with? No laws, no space, no time, no particles, no radiation. That’s a pretty good definition of nothing.

Krauss acknowledges that when he talks about “virtual particles popping in and out of existence on a timescale so short you can’t see them,” he might sound like some kind of philosopher or priest “talking about angels on the head of a pin or something.”

However, while we can’t see virtual particles directly, Krauss points out that we can measure their effects indirectly. And this is the key to understanding modern physics. For every particle that exists in nature, there is a likelihood that out of empty space, particle-anti-particle pairs will be created spontaneously and they will exist for a very short time before they disappear. “The fact that we can actually calculate them is what’s responsible for at least one Nobel Prize,” Krauss says. Why? If we include the effects of virtual particles, “we can predict from first principles the results of an observation to nine decimal places and get it right, Krauss says. “There’s nowhere else in science where you can do that.”

What’s the Significance?

Now that we have a better understanding of nothing, we still need to answer the question of why we need to bother getting out of bed in the morning. After all, quantum mechanics can be quite dispiriting to some. As Richard Dawkins wrote in his afterward to A Universe From Nothing:

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

That is not to say that Krauss embraces a pessimistic worldview, or, as some have charged, a reckless indifference to the great moral questions that arise from the idea of creation from nothing. I, for one, don’t think that criticism is fair.

Sure, we’re insignificant, Krauss tells us, but we’re also quite precious. Krauss sees it as “spiritually uplifting” that we get to determine our own future, as opposed to having to simply fulfill the purpose of our creator, like some kind of mannequin. “That makes our future more precious,” he says.

Watch the video here:

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How to Think Like a Scientist

How to Think Like a Scientist
Posted by Chad Orzel
Thrilling legal documents

Thrilling legal documents

I have made allusions to a work-in-progress at various points recently, but my general policy is not to reveal any details until things become official. Well, as you can see from the above photo of signed contracts, it’s official: I sold the work-in-progress to Basic Books, my publisher for How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. The contract calls for 70,000 words (which most likely means the first draft will clock in at 110,000…) of a work tentatively titled How to Think Like a Scientist (because I’m only allowed to publish books with “How to…” in the title…).

So, what is this? Well, like my other books, it’s grown out of stuff I’ve written on the blog, particularly Science Is What Makes Us Human, Science Is Our Human Heritage, and especially Everybody Thinks Scientifically. It’s not a talking-physics-to-the-dog book (Emmy is disappointed, and sulking…), but a big-picture book on science in a broader sense.

The core argument, as in those blog posts, is that the process of science– looking at the world, thinking of possible explanations for how it works, testing those models by experiment, and telling everyone the results– is an essential human activity, something every human is capable of. And, in fact, every human does make use of this process, in a wide range of everyday activities. Millions of people who don’t think of themselves as scientists are, in fact, thinking like scientists every day, in pursuit of hobbies and other activities they enjoy.

The plan is to lay out that basic process, then illustrate it with a bunch of examples, taking some everyday hobby activity, showing how it relies on some aspect of scientific thinking, and showing how a historical scientific discovery relied on a process analogous to what is used in that hobby. Draft chapters compare playing bidding card games like bridge to the Rutherford, Marsden, and Geiger experiment that discovered the structure of the atom, doing crossword puzzles to piecing together the improbable structure of quantum physics, and playing basketball to precision timekeeping. I’m currently working on something using On the Origin of Species to argue that Rutherford’s “physics and stamp collecting” quote maybe ought to be considered less as a dig at biologists than as a compliment to stamp collectors.

This is, obviously, rather different than anything else I’ve written, and it’s going to be a bit of a challenge in a number of ways. It’s going to have some more personal anecdotes in it (meaning I’ll have to walk the line between including enough to be charming while not including so much as to seem egotistical), it’s going to involve a lot of historical anecdotes (meaning a lot of time chasing references on the Internet and in the library), and it’s going to involve talking about science outside my own area of expertise (meaning I’ll need beta readers– I’m already lining up biologists to correct my egregious errors about Darwin). and, of course, I’m trying to do this while serving as department chair, and with two little kids in the house.

It’s going to be a ton of work in the next year (delivery date is Jan 1, 2014), but I think it’ll also be a lot of fun, for really geeky values of “fun.” It will undoubtedly take a toll on the blog, though– most of my non-work-related writing time will need to be spent on the book, not here. Some bits and pieces that get cut out of the book are sure to end up on the blog, though, which I hope will whet people’s appetites for the eventual book.

So, anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to, and what I’ll be up to. And, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read some more Darwin.