This is a brief review of A Universe from Nothing (Why There is Something Rather than Nothing), by Lawrence Krauss (2012).
ISBN-10: 1451624468 | ISBN-13: 978-1451624465. Amazon.
I loved making it through this book, but I have to admit that I couldn’t follow much of the physics described by Lawrence Krauss. I am scientifically trained, but my own field was biology and more specifically neuroscience and physiology, with a little bit of biochemistry. My physics is very much limited to the basics covered by first year university science programs (from nearly 30 years ago)!
Having said that, I feel that if I persisted – probably by re-reading the book a few more times and/or following up some of the fundamentals from other sources (I reckon Wikipedia would suffice!) – I would probably appreciate the material a lot better. However it is certainly straightforward enough to follow the key points, such as the flat, eternal expansion of the universe, dark energy and cosmic background radiation, that the total energy of the universe is zero, and the outrageous but statistically balanced properties of virtual particles (see Ch 10: Nothing is Unstable).
One of the excellent features of Krauss’ coverage is that it is very much an outlined history of the major discoveries in cosmology and particle physics over the past century or so and their significance to our existing understanding of physics on the sub-atomic and the whole-of-universe scales. Credit is paid to the vast array of famous and not-so-famous physicists that have made the important contributions to the field. The material is all presented honestly, from the ground breaking findings that are not in dispute, to false paths that some researchers have taken in their quests for the truth, as well as the poorly-understood and even highly-speculative fields such as string theory.
However, it really isn’t necessary for the reader to follow precisely every description of every important discovery in cosmology or quantum mechanics in order to appreciate the circumstances of the origin of the universe. The physics basis is critical to the conclusions, of course, but the most important implications come out in Krauss’ final chapters and the Epilogue. A distinction between science and theology that is highlighted here (and indeed, throughout the book), is that scientists don’t claim to know all the answers. The very fact that we don’t know it all is indeed the main driver for further exploration and experimentation:
“…That is why we have science. We may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy. But only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos.”
In contrast are “…those who have decided in advance […] that the supernatural (i.e., God) must exist so they define their philosophical ideas (once again completely divorced from any empirical basis) to exclude anything but the possibility of a god.”
Furthermore, Krauss doesn’t need to get bogged down in esoteric metaphysics. All he does is highlight a few salient points and questions about our origins, and whether there really is any need for God in our rationalisation for existence. The philosophical discussion has now been pushed back, to beyond whether ‘something can come from nothing’ by virtue of rational, physical, natural causes, because we now know that it definitely can. Instead the metaphysical ponderings are now about the laws of physics, and the question apparently first highlighted by Albert Einstein. To paraphrase: “did God have any choice in the creation of the universe?”. Or more specifically now, did God have any choice in the laws of physics? (“God”, in this context, can be taken as the omnipotent deity if you’re theistically inclined, or as Einstein and Krauss would contend, simply the profound nature of all reality that doesn’t require intelligence, morals, or any other anthropomorphised attributes.)
Despite what theologians might have to say on this matter, no one yet has the answer to this question (was there any ‘choice’ in the laws of physics for our universe), including Lawrence Krauss. Importantly, the question is a human one, and while we can ‘supplement our understanding’ of it with philosophy, the most robust approaches we have to address it, as well as any other question of relevance to humanity, are those of scientific enquiry.