Something from Nothing

When I was a Christian I believed that the one knockdown argument against evolution had to do with the origin of the universe: if a big bang requires matter and energy then where did the matter come from and where did the energy come from? As I proceeded on my journey away from belief in Christian doctrines I found a mountain of evidence against the Christian God and a whole variety of satellite fields which surround that concept. The sheer amount and quality of evidence against the God concept enabled me to give up the Christian faith. But the one niggling thing at the back of my mind was still this idea around the origin of the universe. It was not enough to prevent me from giving up my faith, one must weigh all of the evidence and see where it points as opposed to simply standing on one unsolved idea in defiance of everything else. Just because I did not have a solution to the origin of the universe did not mean that Christianity warranted any more merit. After all, the argument that “God must have made it” is simply a God of the gaps argument anyway. And in place of the Christian God one could insert any other number of gods or God concepts, so it is not a cogent argument.

But interestingly as I have continued to study over the last few years I have discovered that science has made a number of breakthroughs in regards to this idea. Disregarding our belief that things must come from other things, scientists have made discoveries which challenge this assumption. I am no physicist, so I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject but, as the author, I would like to wax lyrical for a moment about the idea of nothing.

Part of the problem is our concept of nothing. We look in front of us and we see nothing so we presume that nothing is there. But as human beings we are never in the presence of nothing. Even if I stand on the other side of the room from a stereo and presume that there is nothing in between the stereo and myself I am wrong. In that space that I have called nothing exists billions of tiny somethings. Carbon dioxide from my own lungs, the oxygen that I will breathe in, microscopic bacteria, dust and skin cells are all floating in that massive nothing. When we look through a telescope we can look at galaxies that are light years away. We observe the light from distant suns and presume that they are there, but many of them will not be there. Because the light from those stars has taken so long to travel to earth, it is very possible for many of the stars that we observe to have burnt out long before we observe them. The problem is that we do not know which ones are there and which ones are not there. So it is quite possible for us to observe something when there is in fact nothing there. This just shows the shortfalls and limitations of our human minds. It also shows the distortion that can happen when large amounts of time are added to an equation. As soon as we are dealing with extraordinarily large timeframes, our human perception becomes flawed. So we see nothing when there is in fact something there, and we see something when there is in fact nothing there. Because we have evolved to fit a very specific set of purposes, we are not cut out for dealing with concepts on the quantum level. Our ancestors didn’t have to perform astrophysics, so we are not capable of innately grasping the magnitude of such concepts.

Dr Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, talks about the idea that the inner workings of the universe defy human logic. To our minds the idea that something can come from nothing seems irrational, classic philosophy implies that out of nothing comes nothing, but quantum mechanics demonstrates that this is untrue. The universe, apparently, does not care about our common sense. In quantum mechanics everything that seems sensible about the universe at some level is not true. For example: we appear to be at one place at one time, mono present, as it were. But electrons can be in multiple places at a time. These things that appear illogical and impossible are none the less true. Once you add gravity to the mix everything changes. The nothing of the classical Greeks and the Bible, an eternal empty void, is certainly not nothing, because empty space is an abundant brew of virtual particles. Discoveries prove that nothing actually weighs something, and there is, in fact, not much difference between nothing and something. The universe continues to surprise physicists, and much to our distaste it does not appear to care what we think is sensible.[1]

Richard Dawkins, an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and former University of Oxford Professor for Public Understanding of Science, recognises that it is a difficult concept for us to grasp because our brains are tools for making sense of the world around us. Our ancestors had to survive in a world where things didn’t move very fast (in physics terms) and were large, making quantum mechanics primarily illogical to us. Our ancestor’s brains were naturally selected in an extremely restrictive manner to perform a limited range of survival tasks. In this way common sense equipped us to be very bad physicists. It is for this reason that there are some physicists who suggest that we shouldn’t even try to understand quantum mechanics we should just do the mathematics. In other words, the numbers will work on the page, but the concepts are too lofty to grasp with our limited minds. Dawkins goes on to say that in regards to the ideas of quantum mechanics we must emancipate ourselves from our restrictive thinking in much the same way that our recent ancestors had to free themselves from the concept of a flat earth.[2]

The philosopher Immanuel Kant pondered the idea of whether or not the universe had a beginning at some length. He believed that there were logical conditions no matter which way we look at it. On the one hand, if the universe had a beginning why did it wait an infinite time before it began? And on the other hand if the universe had existed forever why did it take an infinite time to reach the present stage? Both of these ideas are dependent upon the assumption that time is absolute, meaning that it goes from the infinite past towards an infinite future, independent of any universe. But when Einstein introduced the theory of relatively he demonstrated that space and time are not absolute. The entire model that people had been using to think about these problems was flipped on its head. Einstein recognised that time and space are dynamic properties shaped by the matter and energy of the universe. They are limited to the universe and therefore it makes no sense to talk of time before the universe began.

Professor Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, asks: “If one believed that the universe had a beginning, the obvious question was what happened before the beginning? What was God doing before He made the world? Was He preparing Hell for people who asked such questions?” In his research Professor Hawking determined that the equations of General Relativity break down at the singularity[3] and therefore Einstein’s theory cannot predict how the universe would begin but only how it could evolve once it has already begun. Additionally, Einstein’s theory would break down amidst the powerful gravitational fields of the early universe. Hawking proposed that a more complete theory is required because General Relativity does not take account of the miniscule scale of matter which is explored in quantum theory.[4] Because when the universe began it would have been at the quantum level this becomes incredibly important. Hawking goes on to say that in combining General Relativity with Quantum Theory he, and his associate John Hartl, were able to deduce that “time can behave like another direction in space under extreme conditions. This means one can get rid of the problem of time having a beginning, in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world… To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question.”[5] We can see that one scientific concept has replaced another in the advancement towards our greater understanding of the universe around us. Hawking compares his concept of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe to bubbles of steam in boiling water.

“The idea is that the most probable histories of the universe would be like the surfaces of the bubbles. Many small bubbles would appear, and then disappear again. These would correspond to mini universes that would expand but would collapse again while still of microscopic size. They are possible alternative universes but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. A few of the little bubbles, however, grow to a certain size at which they are safe from recollapse. They will continue to expand at an ever increasing rate, and will form the bubbles we see. They will correspond to universes that would start off expanding at an ever increasing rate. This is called inflation, like the way prices go up every year.”[6]

The topic is a rabbit hole, and its complexity is immeasurable, but at the end of the day Hawking declares that the “Big Bang didn’t need God,”[7] and that “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing…Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to … set the Universe going.”[8]

Michio Kaku, a well-known author and Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York, says that the universe could essentially be nothingness which was unstable and created a universe within the multi-verse. So how can you create a universe from nothing? Kaku tells us that if you calculate the total matter of the universe it is positive. If you calculate the total energy of the universe it is negative because of gravity, because gravity has negative energy. When we add the two together we get zero. It therefore takes no energy to create a universe. Universes are in his words, free. A detractor may then argue that it doesn’t sound right because positive and negative charges don’t cancel each other out, therefore how can the universe be made out of nothing? Kaku continues: if we calculate the total amount of positive and negative charge in the universe, what do we get? Zero! The universe has zero charge. But what about spin? Galaxies spin in different directions. If we add up all of the spins of the galaxies what do we come up with? Again the answer is zero. So the conclusion is that the universe has zero spin, zero charge and zero energy content. So the universe truly is for free.[9]

We are in an exciting and challenging period of our history where discoveries are being made that revolutionise our understanding of the universe. We must be prepared to upscale our thinking to take on new and sometimes perplexing concepts. If we do not, we will be left behind like Cro-Magnon man. If we do not wish to become obsolete we must adapt. The so called common sense that we carry which is derived from our early ancestors does not prepare us for the magnitude of the discoveries that are being made in the field of quantum mechanics. If some of the arguments above are confusing to you, it is not surprising. We are simply not well adapted to dealing with the concepts. But nonetheless, they are there on paper, they work mathematically, and that is what is important. Nature does not care about our inability to understand it, and the experts agree, that against our better instincts something can come from nothing.

 

[1] How the Universe came from Nothing – Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss discuss. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QNpV7dpO5Y

[2] Ibid.

[3] A singularity is a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space–time when matter is infinitely dense but has almost no volume, such as at the centre of a black hole. Hawking identifies that “at the singularity causing the big bang all the laws of physics would have broken down. The universe evolved from the Big Bang, completely independently of what it was like before. Even the amount of matter in the universe, can be different to what it was before the Big Bang, as the Law of Conservation of Matter, will break down at the Big Bang. Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang.” The Beginning of Time. Stephen Hawking. http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html

[4] The Origin of the Universe. Professor Stephen Hawking. http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-origin-of-the-universe.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.space.com/20710-stephen-hawking-god-big-bang.html.

[8] The Grand Design. Stephen Hawking. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-09-03-hawking02_ST_N.htm.

[9] Michio Kaku: can universes form from “nothing”? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlcHMI0cC00

2 thoughts on “Something from Nothing

  1. Thanks Ronald. The answer is certainly complicated, and that’s because it’s a complicated issue. As mentioned in the article, this is not something that is easy for us to grasp. The important takeaway is that the math works and the concept is proven.

    Like

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