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Scientific American

Much Ado about Nothing

published May 2012 | comments (14)
Science closes in on why there is something
instead of nothing
magazine cover

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? This is one of those profound questions that is easy to ask but difficult to answer. For millennia humans simply said, “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe. Science deals with natural (not supernatural) causes and, as such, has several ways of exploring where the “something” came from.

Multiple universes. There are many multiverse hypotheses predicted from mathematics and physics that show how our universe may have been born from another universe. For example, our universe may be just one of many bubble universes with varying laws of nature. Those universes with laws similar to ours will produce stars, some of which collapse into black holes and singularities that give birth to new universes—in a manner similar to the singularity that physicists believe gave rise to the big bang.

M-theory. In his and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking embraces “M-theory” (an extension of string theory that includes 11 dimensions) as “the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself.”

Quantum foam creation. The “nothing” of the vacuum of space actually consists of subatomic spacetime turbulence at extremely small distances measurable at the Planck scale—the length at which the structure of spacetime is dominated by quantum gravity. At this scale, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle allows energy to briefly decay into particles and antiparticles, thereby producing “something” from “nothing.”

Nothing is unstable. In his new book, A Universe from Nothing, cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss attempts to link quantum physics to Einstein’s general theory of relativity to explain the origin of a universe from nothing: “In quantum gravity, universes can, and indeed always will, spontaneously appear from nothing. Such universes need not be empty, but can have matter and radiation in them, as long as the total energy, including the negative energy associated with gravity [balancing the positive energy of matter], is zero.” Furthermore, “for the closed universes that might be created through such mechanisms to last for longer than infinitesimal times, something like inflation is necessary.” Observations show that the universe is in fact flat (there is just enough matter to slow its expansion but not to halt it), has zero total energy and underwent rapid inflation, or expansion, soon after the big bang, as described by inflationary cosmology. Krauss concludes: “Quantum gravity not only appears to allow universes to be created from nothing—meaning…absence of space and time—it may require them. ‘Nothing’—in this case no space, no time, no anything!—is unstable.”

The other hypotheses are also testable. The idea that new universes can emerge from collapsing black holes may be illuminated through additional knowledge about the properties of black holes, which are being studied now. Other bubble universes might be detected in the subtle temperature variations of the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the big bang of our own universe. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) spacecraft is collecting data on this radiation. Additionally, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) is designed to detect exceptionally faint gravitational waves. If there are other universes, perhaps ripples in gravitational waves will signal their presence. Maybe gravity is such a relatively weak force (compared with electromagnetism and the nuclear forces) because some of it “leaks” out to other universes.

Even if God is hypothesized as the creator of the laws of nature that caused the universe (or multiverse) to pop into existence out of nothing—if such laws are deterministic—then God had no choice in the creation of the universe and thus was not needed. In any case, why turn to the supernatural when our understanding of the natural is still in its incipient stages? We would be wise to heed this skeptical principle: before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world.

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14 Comments to “Much Ado about Nothing”

  1. Liam McDaid Says:

    I’m surprised to hear Krauss saying that inflation is required, because variants of the String Model (theories have been tested) imply that inflation is not necessary if universes as branes are out there in the Bulk effecting each other under the influence of (cue echo sound effect…) Dark Energy. I knew there were issues with this idea, but I didn’t think cosmologists had abandoned it.

  2. Necdet Altınay Says:

    At the first paragragh, the sentence:”Science deals with natural (not supernatural) causes and, as such, has several ways of exploring where the “something” came from.” is great. There is no need to say anything about “God”. If a scientist says something about “believing” he is no longer a “scientist”.

  3. Gaston Gravel Says:

    The study of physics is needed to read or t o comment
    The quantum physics is not easy to comprehend

    Good professors of physic are very rares
    And creation by god is so eazy …

  4. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    +Necdet assert ‘If a scientist says something about “believing” he is no longer a “scientist”.’
    I find that sentiment troubling – it unnecessarily creates conflict between believers and non-believers. The non-believers have a numerical advantage so it’s wise not to provoke them. Suppose a world expert on the genetic diversity of ants wants to believe in a divine a ‘watch-maker god’ – who cares, as long as they don’t let it their work (at least not more than every scientist’s work is biased by social factors)?

    +Gravel hits upon something here: Religions have far more charismatic, persuasive and effective communicators than the sciences do. Is there any wonder that religions have more supporters than the skeptics do? Interestingly, Cargan Sagan, was a charismatic, persuasive and effective communicator and many within the Astronomy community resented him. That’s another thing the religious camp has going for it – they support their missionaries.

  5. John Persichilli Says:

    As always, there is more to the story of “creation” than can be described in scientific terms. Most “believers” either don’t, or choose not to, have a curious enough mind to put 2 and 2 together and see there is another side.

    As a teacher (retired) and astronomer (always will be) I found Dr. Sagan to be one of my hero’s along with Galileo and Thomas Jefferson (He had a telescope!).

    I don’t have the answer either. All I can say is that my research deals with the birth of stars although I feel that I’m falling into a black hole of MI (it’s hereditary).


  6. frank Says:

    lots of “hope” and “might” here – an admission of unprovenness?
    on another tack – we have a theory that “explains” about 4-6% of everything and leaves everything else “dark”!
    what if we are in a bounded universe (cf unbounded)?
    seems possible in such a case to resolve a lot of problems – except that we are bAck to a young planet … shock horror!

  7. Robert Webb Says:

    I’m curious about a couple of things. I like the idea that universes may themselves have undergone a kind of evolution by natural selection, where universes whose laws allow them to last longer are therefore more plentiful. However this requires one universe to spawn another, and pass on its own laws, with small mutations.

    Does the M-theory idea of universes being created when neighbouring branes bump into each other allow this? Seems that each would be independent. Or maybe the branes themselves could carry the genetic material? Actually, this could even mean that the two branes are effectively having sex! Something which paid off in our own evolution, allowing sharing and re-combining of genetic material from two sources.

    Am I right that the M-theory idea of bumping (and grinding) branes isn’t compatible with the idea of child universes spawning off via black holes? Or do these bumps somehow necessarily coincide with black holes?

    If new universes are spawned from black holes, wouldn’t this mean that the new universe only has as much energy/matter as fell into the hole? Wouldn’t each generation be smaller than the previous?

    With regard to gradually mutating laws of nature, is there actually any theoretical work behind this? I hear a lot about how there may be many universes, with slightly different laws of physics, and maybe a way for one to spawn another with slightly mutated laws, but is there any mathematical framework for this? We don’t know what maintains these laws nor where/how they are encoded. Does string theory have anything to say about that?

    As for nothing, none of these theories really deal with nothing, only with less something. When someone says that they know how something can come from nothing, they can only demonstrate this using laws of nature which must already be present. Some kind of quantum behaviour is already presumed. I appreciate the advance, explaining how the more complex gradually derived from the less complex, but still seems there’s a real conceptual barrier at the start of it all. Was there ever truly nothing? And if there was nothing, then what would there be?

    Thanks for listening to my crazy ramblings :-)

  8. steven cross Says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard of anything about the quantum foam creation. Sounds fascinating! Can anyone recommend any publications on this?

  9. Fred Kohler Says:

    I have read Lawrence Krauss’ book “The Universe from Nothing” and could not find an explanation how the vacuum foam got its properties. The explanation may require mathematics which is not accessible except to a very tiny minority of scientists. There are currently no ways in which these equations and concepts can be tested. A somewhat more modest attitude seems to me approbiate, best examplified by one of Albert Einstein’s sayings: “In the future our current science may appear childish and yet its the most valuable thing we possess”.

  10. Necdet Altınay Says:

    Please let me clarify what I mean in the No.2 comment above. After working 20 years as a scientist in a research and development department, I consider myself a scientist too. One must dedicate himself to his job. I would never comment on subject where I did not think about. To say something needs a lot of research and much information gathering. For any conclusion one must work for it.

    when I read or hear about religion from a scientist they usually conclude with a negative statement for God. It seems to me that they just ask for trouble, ask for counter reactions so that they can sell their books more. If they dedicate themselves to science talk about it, nothing more.

    The first question summurise it “WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? We always work on something, in it, about it… We know nothing about “nothing”. If I ask myself “where is the God” I must answer first “where am I in my body?” A scientist is a human who dedicates herself or himself to science and only science! Never talk about something on which you did not dedicate yourself.

    Dear “Bad Boy Scientist” am I still “troubling”?

  11. Steinmaster Says:

    Shermer obviously is neither a mathematician nor a physicist.

  12. Dukunocil Says:

    Shermer is just a wiseacre and likes sophistry about nothing. He uses “nothing” and nothing.
    He follows old idea, regurgitated and sensationalized by Krauss. He obviously does not know where and how multiverses started, he does not know how ‘quantum foam’ became, and he mixes into the whole bag M-theory.
    Universe resulting from collapsing black hole is not a universe from nothing (or “nothing”). The article is a big NOTHING.

  13. Tony Q. King Says:

    @Dukunocil –
    Well… nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  14. JohnGaltsApprentice Says:

    First, I wonder why Mr. Shermer made no reference to another, more comprehensive book on this very subject: “Our Undiscovered Universe: Introducing Null Physics the Science of Uniform and Unconditional Reality” by Terence Witt.
    Second (and this is more of a personal comment on my part), what would possess a person to willingly declare themselves to be a “skeptic”; that is, to adopt SKEPTICISM as their philosohical outlook? As a philosohical basis for one’s thought-process, especially in the context of persuing science, skepticism can only instill an attitude of perpetual doubt and an UNWILLINGNESS to accept reality for what it IS. Maintaining skepticism as a philosohical outlook is like generalizing that “EVERYBODY lies…” and then declaring that “…therefore, NOTHING that ANYONE says can be taken as truth”; then, upon declaring this the dyed-in-the-wool skeptic sits back (so self-satisfied) and thinks themself to be “intelligent” for having said such a thing. (Although, if they were TRULY skeptics, they would instantly have to DOUBT THE VERACITY OF THEIR OWN STATMENT.)
    I, personally speaking, am an Objectivist (Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand): I ACCEPT reality for what it IS.
    Rather than getting into a lecture or an emotional rant, I will leave off with a quote from Rand’s most famous book (Atlas Shrugged), one that concerns Skepticism:
    “We know that we know nothing,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—“There are no absolutes,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—“You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.