, August 05, 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.