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A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing


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Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simply by taking sides.


In the interests 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 of the world’s religions. Every day beautiful and miraculous objects suddenly appear, from snowflakes on a cold winter morning to vibrant rainbows after a late-afternoon summer shower. Yet no one but the most ardent fundamentalists would suggest that each and every such object is lovingly and painstakingly and, most important, purposefully created by a divine intelligence. In fact, many laypeople as well as scientists revel in our ability to explain how snowflakes and rainbows can spontaneously appear, based on simple, elegant laws of physics.

Of course, one can ask, and many do, “Where do the laws of physics come from?” as well as more suggestively, “Who created these laws?” Even if one can answer this first query, the petitioner will then often ask, “But where did that come from?” or “Who created that?” and so on.

Ultimately, many thoughtful people are driven to the apparent need for First Cause, as Plato, Aquinas, or the modern Roman Catholic Church might put it, and thereby to suppose some divine being: a creator of all that there is, and all that there ever will be, someone or something eternal and everywhere.

Nevertheless, the declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, “Who created the creator?” After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?

These arguments always remind me of the famous story of an expert giving a lecture on the origins of the universe (sometimes identified as Bertrand Russell and sometimes William James), who is challenged by a woman who believes that the world is held up by a gigantic turtle, who is then held up by another turtle, and then another . . . with further turtles “all the way down!” An infinite regress of some creative force that begets itself, even some imagined force that is greater than turtles, doesn’t get us any closer to what it is that gives rise to the universe. Nonetheless, this metaphor of an infinite regression may actually be closer to the real process by which the universe came to be than a single creator would explain.

Defining away the question by arguing that the buck stops with God may seem to obviate the issue of infinite regression, but here I invoke my mantra: The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. The existence or nonexistence of a creator is independent of our desires. A world without God or purpose may seem harsh or pointless, but that alone doesn’t require God to actually exist.

Similarly, our minds may not be able to easily comprehend infinities (although mathematics, a product of our minds, deals with them rather nicely), but that doesn’t tell us that infinities don’t exist. Our universe could be infinite in spatial or temporal extent. Or, as Richard Feynman once put it, the laws of physics could be like an infinitely layered onion, with new laws becoming operational as we probe new scales. We simply don’t know!

For more than two thousand years, the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” has been presented as a challenge to the proposition that our universe—which contains the vast complex of stars, galaxies, humans, and who knows what else—might have arisen without design, intent, or purpose. While this is usually framed as a philosophical or religious question, it is first and foremost a question about the natural world, and so the appropriate place to try and resolve it, first and foremost, is with science.

The purpose of this book is simple. I want to show how modern science, in various guises, can address and is addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing: The answers that have been obtained—from staggeringly beautiful experimental observations, as well as from the theories that underlie much of modern physics—all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem. Indeed, something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being. Moreover, all signs suggest that this is how our universe could have arisen.

I stress the word could here, because we may never have enough empirical information to resolve this question unambiguously. But the fact that a universe from nothing is even plausible is certainly significant, at least to me.

Before going further, I want to devote a few words to the notion of “nothing”—a topic that I will return to at some length later. For I have learned that, when discussing this question in public forums, nothing upsets the philosophers and theologians who disagree with me more than the notion that I, as a scientist, do not truly understand “nothing.” (I am tempted to retort here that theologians are experts at nothing.)

“Nothing,” they insist, is not any of the things I discuss. Nothing is “nonbeing,” in some vague and ill-defined sense. This reminds me of my own efforts to define “intelligent design” when I first began debating with creationists, of which, it became clear, there is no clear definition, except to say what it isn’t. “Intelligent design” is simply a unifying umbrella for opposing evolution. Similarly, some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine “nothing” as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe.

But therein, in my opinion, lies the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy. For surely “nothing” is every bit as physical as “something,” especially if it is to be defined as the “absence of something.” It then behooves us to understand precisely the physical nature of both these quantities. And without science, any definition is just words.

A century ago, had one described “nothing” as referring to purely empty space, possessing no real material entity, this might have received little argument. But the results of the past century have taught us that empty space is in fact far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learned more about how nature works. Now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as “nothing,” but rather as a “quantum vacuum,” to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized “nothing.”

So be it. But what if we are then willing to describe “nothing” as the absence of space and time itself? Is this sufficient? Again, I suspect it would have been . . . at one time. But, as I shall describe, we have learned that space and time can themselves spontaneously appear, so now we are told that even this “nothing” is not really the nothing that matters. And we’re told that the escape from the “real” nothing requires divinity, with “nothing” thus defined by fiat to be “that from which only God can create something.”

It has also been suggested by various individuals with whom I have debated the issue that, if there is the “potential” to create something, then that is not a state of true nothingness. And surely having laws of nature that give such potential takes us away from the true realm of nonbeing. But then, if I argue that perhaps the laws themselves also arose spontaneously, as I shall describe might be the case, then that too is not good enough, because whatever system in which the laws may have arisen is not true nothingness.

Turtles all the way down? I don’t believe so. But the turtles are appealing because science is changing the playing field in ways that make people uncomfortable. Of course, that is one of the purposes of science (one might have said “natural philosophy” in Socratic times). Lack of comfort means we are on the threshold of new insights. Surely, invoking “God” to avoid difficult questions of “how” is merely intellectually lazy. After all, if there were no potential for creation, then God couldn’t have created anything. It would be semantic hocus-pocus to assert that the potentially infinite regression is avoided because God exists outside nature and, therefore, the “potential” for existence itself is not a part of the nothingness from which existence arose.

My real purpose here is to demonstrate that in fact science has changed the playing field, so that these abstract and useless debates about the nature of nothingness have been replaced by useful, operational efforts to describe how our universe might actually have originated. I will also explain the possible implications of this for our present and future.

This reflects a very important fact. When it comes to understanding how our universe evolves, religion and theology have been at best irrelevant. They often muddy the waters, for example, by focusing on questions of nothingness without providing any definition of the term based on empirical evidence. While we do not yet fully understand the origin of our universe, there is no reason to expect things to change in this regard. Moreover, I expect that ultimately the same will be true for our understanding of areas that religion now considers its own territory, such as human morality.

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.

The results of experiments that I will describe here are not only timely, they are also unexpected. The tapestry that science weaves in describing the evolution of our universe is far richer and far more fascinating than any revelatory images or imaginative stories that humans have concocted. Nature comes up with surprises that far exceed those that the human imagination can generate.

Over the past two decades, an exciting series of developments in cosmology, particle theory, and gravitation have completely changed the way we view the universe, with startling and profound implications for our understanding of its origins as well as its future. Nothing could therefore not be more interesting to write about, if you can forgive the pun.

The true inspiration for this book comes not so much from a desire to dispel myths or attack beliefs, as from my desire to celebrate knowledge and, along with it, the absolutely surprising and fascinating universe that ours has turned out to be.

Our search will take us on a whirlwind tour to the farthest reaches of our expanding universe, from the earliest moments of the Big Bang to the far future, and will include perhaps the most surprising discovery in physics in the past century.

Indeed, the immediate motivation for writing this book now is a profound discovery about the universe that has driven my own scientific research for most of the past three decades and that has resulted in the startling conclusion that most of the energy in the universe resides in some mysterious, now inexplicable form permeating all of empty space. It is not an understatement to say that this discovery has changed the playing field of modern cosmology.

For one thing, this discovery has produced remarkable new support for the idea that our universe arose from precisely nothing. It has also provoked us to rethink both a host of assumptions about the processes that might govern its evolution and, ultimately, the question of whether the very laws of nature are truly fundamental. Each of these, in its own turn, now tends to make the question of why there is something rather than nothing appear less imposing, if not completely facile, as I hope to describe.

The direct genesis of this book hearkens back to October of 2009, when I delivered a lecture in Los Angeles with the same title. Much to my surprise, the YouTube video of the lecture, made available by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, has since become something of a sensation, with nearly a million viewings as of this writing, and numerous copies of parts of it being used by both the atheist and theist communities in their debates.

Because of the clear interest in this subject, and also as a result of some of the confusing commentary on the web and in various media following my lecture, I thought it worth producing a more complete rendition of the ideas that I had expressed there in this book. Here I can also take the opportunity to add to the arguments I presented at the time, which focused almost completely on the recent revolutions in cosmology that have changed our picture of the universe, associated with the discovery of the energy and geometry of space, and which I discuss in the first two-thirds of this book.

In the intervening period, I have thought a lot more about the many antecedents and ideas constituting my argument; I’ve discussed it with others who reacted with a kind of enthusiasm that was infectious; and I’ve explored in more depth the impact of developments in particle physics, in particular, on the issue of the origin and nature of our universe. And finally, I have exposed some of my arguments to those who vehemently oppose them, and in so doing have gained some insights that have helped me develop my arguments further.

While fleshing out the ideas I have ultimately tried to describe here, I benefitted tremendously from discussions with some of my most thoughtful physics colleagues. In particular I wanted to thank Alan Guth and Frank Wilczek for taking the time to have extended discussions and correspondence with me, resolving some confusions in my own mind and in certain cases helping reinforce my own interpretations.

Emboldened by the interest of Leslie Meredith and Dominick Anfuso at Free Press, Simon & Schuster, in the possibility of a book on this subject, I then contacted my friend Christopher Hitchens, who, besides being one of the most literate and brilliant individuals I know, had himself been able to use some of the arguments from my lecture in his remarkable series of debates on science and religion. Christopher, in spite of his ill health, kindly, generously, and bravely agreed to write a foreword. For that act of friendship and trust, I will be eternally grateful. Unfortunately, Christopher’s illness eventually overwhelmed him to the extent that completing the foreword became impossible, in spite of his best efforts. Nevertheless, in an embarrassment of riches, my eloquent, brilliant friend, the renowned scientist and writer Richard Dawkins, had earlier agreed to write an afterword. After my first draft was completed, he then proceeded to produce something in short order whose beauty and clarity was astounding, and at the same time humbling. I remain in awe. To Christopher, Richard, then, and all of those above, I issue my thanks for their support and encouragement, and for motivating me to once again return to my computer and write.

© 2012 Lawrence M. Krauss

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anderson.stephen49, January 15, 2013 (view all comments by anderson.stephen49)
A wonderful book to give you all the food for thought about our Universe!
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Michael Barton, August 5, 2012 (view all comments by Michael Barton)
For a book that has a lot to say about nothing, there is quite a lot in it. Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist and Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and an increasingly recognized spokesperson for atheism, gives a sweeping overview of the state of cosmology, with plenty of historical tidbits and open-ended questions for the curious. The overall argument is that the statement that “something cannot come from nothing” (that is, how can the Big Bang have occurred from nothing?) collapses under recent theoretical and observational research in astrophysics. Beyond providing the science and making it comprehensible to a nonphysicist such as myself, Krauss offers that these new explanations make religious explanations (God, gods, other deities, or what have you) increasingly unnecessary to explain the origin of the universe. This is not a science book, but rather a science and religion book, and Krauss proudly promotes atheism. Fine by me, but it is something readers should be aware of.

The book stems from a very successful YouTube video of Krauss’ lecture by the same name (currently, it has over 1,187,000 views). I’ve enjoyed the video several times, and there are great lines from it, so I was excited to hear that Krauss was extending his lecture into a book. I recently read Lisa Randall’s 2011 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (which I reviewed for the Portland Book Review), and she states that recent work in cosmology aims to “ultimately tell us about who we are and where we came from.” Krauss certainly does this in A Universe From Nothing, and here are some quotables:

The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. (xii)

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies are made of stardust. (17)

Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors. (19) [in the lecture, Krauss stated it this way: “So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.”]

If we are all stardust, as I have written, it is also true, if inflation happened, that we all, literally, emerged from quantum nothingness. (98)

If the universe were any other way, we could not live in it. (136)

If we wish to draw philosophical conclusions about our own existence, our significance, and the significance of the universe itself, our conclusions should be based on empirical knowledge. A truly open mind means forcing out imaginations to conform to the evidence of reality, and not vice versa, whether or not we like the implications. (139)

But no one has ever said that the universe is guided by what we, in our petty myopic corners of space and time, might have originally thought was sensible. It certainly seems sensible to imagine that a priori, matter cannot spontaneously arise from empty space, so that something, in this sense, cannot arise from nothing. But when we allow for the dynamics of gravity and quantum mechanics, we find that this commonsense notion is no longer true. This is the beauty of science, and it should not be threatening. Science simply forces us to revise what is sensible to accommodate the universe, rather than vice versa. (151)

A universe without purpose or guidance may seem, for some, to make life itself meaningless. For others, including me, such a universe is invigorating. It makes the fact of our existence even more amazing, and it motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun, simply because we are here, blessed with consciousness and with the opportunity to do so. Bronowski’s point, however, it that it doesn’t really matter either way, and what we would like for the universe is irrelevant. (181)

There is much to ponder here for those like me who see wonder and awe in the physical world, whether in nature and its “endless forms” or in the universe. I’ll share one more quote from the book. Krauss provides a quote from Darwin at the beginning of chapter 5, in which he discusses the expanding and accelerating universe and dark energy and its unknown origin: “It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.” This comes from a letter by Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker (March 29, 1863). After sharing with Hooker that he regretted using the word “Creator” in the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Darwin stated that he meant creator as a “some wholly unknown process.” Darwin never claimed to explain the origin of life itself. Later, Krauss uses this quote again, and unfortunately it is used poorly:

The metaphysical “rule,” which is held as ironclad conviction by those whom I have debated the issue of creation, namely that “out of nothing nothing comes,” has no foundation in science. Arguing that it is self-evident, unwavering, and unassailable is like arguing, as Darwin falsely did, when he made the suggestion that the origin of life was beyond the domain of science by building an analogy with the incorrect claim that matter cannot be created or destroyed. (174)

This is a rather unfair remark about Darwin. As one might expect from a scientist, here history is being determined by what is known in the present. We may very well know things about the origin of life and origin of matter now, but, as Darwin clearly stated, “thinking at present,” ��" meaning 1863, not 2011 ��" the state of scientific knowledge then did not include such things. The domains of science separated by 150 years would surely be different. This is presentism, and it does a disservice to understanding the past.
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Product Details

Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing
Krauss, Lawrence M.
Krauss, Lawrence
Dawkins, Richard
Hitchens, Christopher
Free Press
Astronomy - General
Publication Date:
9 x 6 in

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A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing Used Hardcover
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Product details 224 pages Free Press - English 9781451624458 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Lawrence Krauss's new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, summarizes the continuing developments in the field of cosmology. In addition to championing these new insights in the study of modern physics, Krauss also frames these advances in the appropriate context of their resulting implications for theologians and deists. Adapted from a lecture he delivered at the 2009 Atheist Alliance international annual convention (and made popular on YouTube), A Universe from Nothing explores the history of the universe from the big bang through inflation to its theoretical endpoint using the most current (and widely accepted) science.

Krauss is marvelously adept at conveying his broad scientific knowledge in as succinct and lucid a manner as is perhaps possible, making it relatively easy for a nontheoretical physicist to grasp the concepts he is attempting to illustrate. Among the more notable and recent advancements that Krauss examines in the book are the discoveries that the universe is now accelerating following the so-called "cosmic jerk" that took place some five billion years ago (see also the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics), the abundance of dark energy that appears to account for nearly three-quarters of the universe's total mass (that resides mostly in "empty space"), and the uniform flatness that characterizes our universe.  The majority of the book is spent assembling and explaining the related pieces that together form a picture of the universe which, according to the latest scientific data, seems to have evolved from nothing — in fact, it may have only been able to evolve precisely because there was nothing.

The ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one's a priori beliefs, not the beauty and elegance one ascribes to one's theoretical models. The results of experiments that I will describe here are not only timely, they are also unexpected. The tapestry that science weaves in describing the evolution of our universe is far richer and far more fascinating than any revelatory images or imaginative stories that humans have concocted.

As our understanding of the nearly 14-billion-year-old universe is constantly evolving, there is clearly much to be learned about cosmology. Krauss is enthusiastic in his dissemination of the accumulated knowledge and seems eager to welcome whatever conceptual refinements future advancements will inevitably bring. A Universe from Nothing is not simply a scientific treatise, however, as Krauss considers what ramifications these new insights have on age-old theological arguments.

For more than two thousand years, the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" has been presented as a challenge to the proposition that our universe — which contains the vast complex of stars, galaxies, humans, and who knows what else — might have arisen without design, intent, or purpose. While this is usually framed as a philosophical or religious question, it is first and foremost a question about the natural world, and so the appropriate place to try and resolve it, first and foremost, is with science.

Richard Dawkins, in the book's afterword, characterizes Krauss's book as "the knockout blow" to the theologian's remaining arguments in favor of a creator. With a few hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe and a modern physics that seems to indicate that our universe could have only arose from nothing, Krauss's assertion that a god is "unnecessary — or at best redundant" is as compelling as the science he uses to arrive at said claim. A Universe from Nothing, like most books of reason and evidence, will do little to dissuade those who ardently profess their belief in a deity, but as cosmology clarifies our place in the universe with greater precision, the arguments in favor of a creator seem ever less defensible. Krauss, in this eminently readable (and often funny!) book, has ventured further down the road of rationality and empiricism, allowing us a guided tour on the never-ending quest to truly understand the nature of life in this brilliant universe we call home.

If we wish to draw philosophical conclusions about our own existence, our significance, and the significance of the universe itself, our conclusions should be based on empirical knowledge. A truly open mind means forcing our imaginations to conform to the evidence of reality and not vice versa, whether or not we like the implications.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Readers interested in the evolution of the universe will find Krauss's account lively and humorous as well as informative. In 1925, Edwin Hubble ('who continues to give me great faith in humanity, because he started out as a lawyer, and then became an astronomer') showed that the universe was expanding. But what was it expanding from? Virtually nothing, an 'infinitesimal point,' said George LeMaitre, who in 1929 proposed the idea of the Big Bang. His theory was later supported by the discovery of remnants of energy called cosmic microwave background radiation — 'the afterglow of the Big Bang,' as Krauss calls it. Researchers also discovered that the universe is expanding not at a steady rate but accelerating, driving matter farther apart faster and faster. Krauss, a professor and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, explores the consequences of a universe dominated by the 'seemingly empty space' left by expansion, urging focused study before expansion pushes everything beyond our reach. Readers will find the result of Krauss's ' absolutely surprising and fascinating universe' as compelling as it is intriguing.(Jan.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "Astronomers at the beginning of the twentieth century were wondering whether there was anything beyond our Milky Way Galaxy. As Lawrence Krauss lucidly explains, astronomers living two trillion years from now, will perhaps be pondering precisely the same question! Beautifully navigating through deep intellectual waters, Krauss presents the most recent ideas on the nature of our cosmos, and of our place within it. A fascinating read."
"Review" by , "In this clear and crisply written book, Lawrence Krauss outlines the compelling evidence that our complex cosmos has evolved from a hot, dense state and how this progress has emboldened theorists to develop fascinating speculations about how things really began."
"Review" by , “A series of brilliant insights and astonishing discoveries have rocked the Universe in recent years, and Lawrence Krauss has been in the thick of it. With his characteristic verve, and using many clever devices, he’s made that remarkable story remarkably accessible. The climax is a bold scientific answer to the great question of existence: Why is there something rather than nothing.”
"Review" by , "With characteristic wit, eloquence and clarity Lawrence Krauss gives a wonderfully illuminating account of how science deals with one of the biggest questions of all: how the universe's existence could arise from nothing. It is a question that philosophy and theology get themselves into muddle over, but that science can offer real answers to, as Krauss's lucid explanation shows. Here is the triumph of physics over metaphysics, reason and enquiry over obfuscation and myth, made plain for all to see: Krauss gives us a treat as well as an education in fascinating style."
"Review" by , “In A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss has written a thrilling introduction to the current state of cosmology — the branch of science that tells us about the deep past and deeper future of everything. As it turns out, everything has a lot to do with nothing — and nothing to do with God. This is a brilliant and disarming book.”
"Review" by , "We have been living through a revolution in cosmology as wondrous as that initiated by Copernicus. Here is the essential, engrossing and brilliant guide."
"Review" by , “Nothing is not nothing. Nothing is something. That's how a cosmos can be spawned from the void — a profound idea conveyed in A Universe From Nothing that unsettles some yet enlightens others. Meanwhile, it's just another day on the job for physicist Lawrence Krauss.”
"Review" by , "In A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss has written a thrilling introduction to the current state of cosmology — the branch of science that tells us about the deep past and deeper future of everything. As it turns out, everything has a lot to do with nothing — and nothing to do with God. This is a brilliant and disarming book."
"Synopsis" by , “If The Origin of Species was biology’s gift to atheism, we may see A Universe from Nothing as the equivalent from physics. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating. ” from the Afterword by Richard Dawkins

A provocative account of the astounding new answers to the most basic philosophical questions: Where did the universe come from and how will it end?

"Synopsis" by , Internationally known theoretical physicist and bestselling author Lawrence Krauss offers provocative, revelatory answers to the most basic philosophical questions: Where did our universe come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? And how is it all going to end?

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" is asked of anyone who says there is no God. Yet this is not so much a philosophical or religious question as it is a question about the natural world — and until now there has not been a satisfying scientific answer. Today, exciting scientific advances provide new insight into this cosmological mystery: Not only can something arise from nothing, something will always arise from nothing. With his wonderfully clear arguments and wry humor, pioneering physicist Lawrence Krauss explains how in this fascinating antidote to outmoded philosophical and religious thinking. As he puts it in his entertaining video of the same title, which has received over 675,000 hits, “Forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be born.”

A mind-bending trip back to the beginning of the beginning, A Universe from Nothing authoritatively presents the most recent evidence that explains how our universe evolved — and the implications for how it’s going to end. It will provoke, challenge, and delight readers to look at the most basic underpinnings of existence in a whole new way. And this knowledge that our universe will be quite different in the future from today has profound implications and directly affects how we live in the present. As Richard Dawkins has described it: This could potentially be the most important scientific book with implications for atheism since Darwin.

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