The Blog

Some of the Changes Lawrence M. Krauss Should Make to the Second Edition of "A Universe from Nothing"

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

A couple of years ago (2012) theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss penned a book titled: A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. In it he dared to say how with only the laws of physics our universe could have created itself out of nothing.

If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to read this book, please do. And while I have some strong disagreements with his particular writing style and some of the structure of the book, there are more than enough insights and enlightenments to make the reading of this book quite enjoyable. And he makes a genuinely Herculean effort to swim around the world, even if everyone assumes it can't be done. I've read the book three times, and often I find myself studying many of the passages in it.

And while I said I would definitely recommend the consumption of this delicacy, I find this meal could have been made even better if only a few more ingredients had been added to it. Here are several things Krauss might think about changing if he ever writes a second edition of A Universe from Nothing.

Explain what you believe math is

If you can't say what math is, then you can't tell us what physics does. To a physicist, math is God, both figuratively and literally.

Yet, in the preface of his book on pages xii and xiii Krauss says: "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."

Krauss mentions what math is in a most casually unimportant manner, as though math is only a footnote in physics. I am hoping this was just an embarrassing accident. For the query of what math is, truly is the most vital question a physicist can both ask and answer. In physics, math is the Alpha and Omega. And in A Universe from Nothing math is very much the whole argument, or should I say the foundation on which the whole argument is based?

Is math created by the mind or discovered and exists apart from our consciousness? If it is but an appendage of our consciousness does math even say anything about our universe? And yet, if math exists without our minds...well, then the universe becomes stranger than strange and at the same time maybe even somehow unnervingly explicable.

So if Krauss wants us to take the idea that our universe could have arisen from nothing as a real possibility by only using physics, he must convince us how this "math" is not fiction (even if one argues it is only created by the mind) and how ultimate reality actually can be explained by this math-god.

Please explain better how we can apply what we know about our universe to the thing that came before our universe

If you travel to different universities around the world and ask physicists what came before the Big Bang, the most common answer is this: We don't know. Does empty space predate the Big Bang? We don't know. Do quantum mechanics and quantum field theory even exist before our universe was here? We don't know. Is there a multiverse? We don't know. Did math come before the creation of our universe? We don't know. Do the laws of science even exist outside our universe? We don't know.

And so it would seem what Krauss says about string theory in his book can also be said about his grand ideas of what reality was before our universe was: "We still have no idea if this remarkable theoretical edifice actually has anything to do with the real world." (The "real world" in this case being that which came before the birth of our reality-universe and "this remarkable theoretical edifice" being all of the mathematical arguments that we presently apply to prove we know what came before the Big Bang.)

Yet, can Krauss's ideas be so easily dismissed?

Maybe, maybe not. (Not accidentally, the same answer he gives if we will ever know why the universe has to be the way that it is.)

As stated, the assumption by the vast majority of physicists is that we cannot know what came before the Big Bang, at least not know. If this is true, then everything said by Krauss and others that think like him about what existed before our universe existed becomes as valuable as interesting colors of waste water.

But in his defense (or to the way that he is thinking) Krauss makes some very easy to understand statements. The best argument is simplicity. And his beliefs come down to some very understandable statements that he says are founded on what we have learned about the laws of physics and the usage of science and maybe even someday on the usage of even more science. ("More science" here being the fact that maybe one day empirical testing will be done to prove or disprove our universe came from nothing, the multiverse exists, etc.)

And when he says: "I have focused on either the creation of something from preexisting empty space or the creation of empty space from no space at all," and: "We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing--involving the absence of space itself--and which may one day return to nothing via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction" he makes a very simple and comprehensible argument. He genuinely believes we can know some scientific truths from our universe and apply them to the world before our universe was here.

I understand what he is saying. He does argue his science with proof, and he does a good job at stating the scientific evidence behind this or that belief. And if we do not know something (why the power of empty space is too powerful, or what is dark matter or dark energy), he seems more than willing to admit it. But he needed to have a place in his book dealing with this problem. How do we know what we know can be applied to what came before the Big Bang? Or, is his argument one of a gentle growth of empirical truths that naturally lead to the belief that we can now know what came before the Big Bang? Are learning how our universe could have come from nothing without breaking the conservation of energy law, grasping the idea how empty space, a quantum vacuum, must always have something in it and is always unstable, and seeing how a tiny particle may inflate to becoming a very large universe collectively arguing how we can apply what is happening in our universe also to the thing that came before our universe?

To a certain degree, his argument always seem to imply that there is no real separation between what came before our universe and our present-day universe. I would have very much appreciated an argument explaining how in the past we could not know what came before the Big Bang and why we can now in the present say we are dealing with things that are telling us of what came before the Big Bang. Or, is he arguing that the former separation of our universe from what came before the Big Bang was based on the incorrect assumption that they are separated? Explaining why these two things are not separated (our quantum empty space also exists in the place that came before the Big Bang) is necessary in this type of argument. Why we could not say before what came before the Big Bang would have fit nicely at the beginning of the book, and how we can now speak about what came before the Big Bang should have been added near the end of the book.

So, can we say anything about what came before our universe through the lens of science? Or, is all of this scientific reasoning and inferring and suggesting and extrapolating simply equal to the ravings of a mystic-lunatic?

Mention more of the physicists who came up with the key ideas that led to how our universe could have come from nothing

Krauss doesn't mention several physicists of the twentieth century who were very much connected to the thesis of his book. And I do not believe this was done purposefully or consciously or maliciously. I just think Krauss may be a little too educated for his own good. Sometimes we know something so easily we forget that it would be nice to know how someone made this idea so easy for us to know.

He doesn't mention Richard C. Tolman of the California Institute of Technology who first came out in his 1934 book Relativity, Thermodynamics, and Cosmology with the idea that if you take all the mass-positive energy and all the gravitational-negative energy and add them up they will cancel each other out, leaving a universe totaling zero energy. And this fact could easily lead to the surreal idea that a universe could start with zero energy (from nothing) and not break the law of the conservation of energy, which states energy can be neither created nor destroyed. This man definitely deserves to have been mentioned in his book.

He also doesn't mention how to argue that we live in a static (always eternal) universe the German physicist Pascual Jordan in the late 1930s thought he had figured out how such a universe could always still be creating new matter by knowing the fact that a star's mass-positive energy and gravitational-negative energy could mean a star's total energy would lead to it having zero energy, giving him the insightful thought that if this was the case what would stop a star from coming into existence by a quantum transition from the vacuum, but never realizing himself that one might ask the same thing about the creation of our universe. And because he was the first physicist to see how something (a star) might be created from nothing (the vacuum), he should have been mentioned in this book.

And it would have been more than fitting if Krauss had told the story of how in the mid-1940s when the physicist George Gamow related Jordan's idea to Einstein when they were walking across the street that it so startled Einstein that he suddenly ceased moving right in the middle of the road, forcing cars to stop to avoid hitting him.

And one of Krauss's most noticeable omissions was when he forgot (or maybe he just didn't know) to mention that it was the American physicist from Hunter College of the City University of New York City Edward P. Tryon who first said that our universe might be a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. In December, 1973, in the British scientific magazine Nature, Tryon came out with the scientific argument that our universe might be the result of a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. In his two-page paper titled, "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?" Tryon would propose the very strange idea that our very large and very old universe could have come from a quantum fluctuation of empty space (the vacuum). In fact, he would describe this vacuum as nothing (and sometimes not quite nothing.) (I think this would make him our first "nothingist.")

Tryon would would use Tolman's idea that our universe could have zero energy (he learned this from the general relativist Peter Bergmann) to help him explain how our universe could have come from nothing and not be violating the law of conservation of energy. He would also describe how our universe has virtual particles that pop in and out of existence at the quantum level of empty space, and then go on to state that so does the place that came before our universe have these same virtual particles popping in and out of empty space, too, but there one of these quantum particles would grow to become our universe. And he came to this discovery by simply making the assumption that our empty space (quantum vacuum) also existed in the place before our universe was here.

And his idea how our universe originated from a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum wasn't rejected because he had said our universe may have come from nothingness, but his proposal was completely rejected by the scientific community because he had said our very large and very old universe had once been a very tiny particle that somehow expanded to becoming our present-day universe. This was too ludicrous for any physicist to accept. Every physicist knew that virtual particles are very tiny and exist only for the briefest of moments. And if one came into existence and had all the energy and mass of our universe it should have crushed itself out of existence or simply collapsed into a singularity. And Tryon is a physicist who definitely should have been mentioned in a book about how our universe might be a quantum process of the vacuum.

And even though Tryon is given credit with coming up with the idea that our universe came from a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum, at about the same time in Soviet Russia (Kiev, Ukraine), P. I. Fomin (Petro Ivanovych Fomin) seems to have been coming up with the same idea of how our universe was created by a quantum process. Yet, he never published anything about his ideas about our universe being created from a quantum process until 1975 and he also didn't publish in a prestigious scientific journal and so nobody gave him credit or really took notice of him in the West. But he should have been mentioned in this book, even if only in a footnote. (And to be fair, I should add in his home country when he died in his obituary he was given credit for coming up with the idea that our universe came from a quantum process.)

And although Krauss mentions Alan Guth, he should have stressed as far as the idea of our universe coming from a quantum process from nothingness was only taken seriously after he came out with his inflationary theory in 1980. Very quickly after he announced his inflationary theory the physics community would come to accept the idea that our universe could originate by a quantum process because the idea of a universe actually coming from a tiny particle and growing to become a very old and very large universe could now be explained by inflationary theory and so now was accepted as a legitimate thing that might have taken place. It happened so quickly that when Alexander Vilenkin came out with his 1982 paper, "The Creation of Our Universes from Nothing," Vilenkin's idea that our universe could be created from a nothingness by quantum tunneling was much more readily accepted simply because Guth had explained how a tiny particle could inflate and eventually become our very large and very old universe.

Drop the afterword by Richard Dawkins

Why should Krauss drop the afterword written by Richard Dawkins? Simple: Dawkins is better than this. Whether you agree with him or not, one has to admit he is a very fine and capable writer. And this afterword is some of the worst writing he has ever erected. And I am a believer you should never want to read someone's worst work but only their finest. And this is far from his best of quill. And so because he is so good and this is not representative of his excellent writing ability, it is better to let this afterword go.*

*And get rid of this sentence: "Now, a century later we scientist can feel smug for having discovered the underlying expansion of the universe, the cosmic microwave background, dark matter, and dark energy." It is a mistake to use dark matter and dark energy as an accomplishment of how much science knows because scientists don't know what dark matter and dark energy are.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community