Well, I finished A Universe From Nothing, and the “nothing” business was cleared up in the end.
Apparently “nothing is unstable” is a fundamental principle which gives rise to the inevitability that out of nothing something will eventually arise. Nothing can’t stay nothing for long, it seems. For me this is still a bit like poetry; I’m not having much luck envisioning total emptiness, bereft even of space. I keep thinking, “How do I begin to think about that?” Krauss himself admits that talking about “why is there something rather than nothing?” can seem a bit like counting the angels on the head of a pin (a favorite pastime of medieval theologians). The difference is, of course, that “physicists can count their angels and can get it right to the nearest angel in a total of 10 billion.” That last phrase is from Richard Dawkins’ afterword.
I’m now listening to Krauss on the Point of Inquiry podcast, hoping he can shed some further light on nothingness for me.
I’m reading Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe From Nothing (every so often I enjoy punishing myself by trying to figure out what cosmologists are learning about the cosmos). About the first half of the book is setting up the main premise, which is that things – particles, bagels, universes – can indeed spring forth from, well, nothing. At first I was confused, because Krauss uses “nothing” to mean both “empty space” and “nothing, not even empty space.” Not being a cosmologist or theologian, I can get my head around empty space, but I have trouble picturing the concept of absolutely nothing. I mean, if even space-time is absent, then what are we to do?
My impression is that this works mathematically and theoretically (which is good), but how can a human being even conceive of this kind of nothingness? It’s not a blank slate; there simply is no slate. Then, through something called “quantum fluctuations”, a slate appears. Then, after about 13.5 billion years, Shakespeare. It’s mind-boggling.
I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’ve just gotten to the meat of the matter, so perhaps this deep, disturbing nothingness is adequately explained further in the book. But right now I’m depleting my store of imagination trying to figure out where quantums are fluctuating if there is no longer any where for them to fluctuate in.
I’ve been reading Death by Black Hole, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s witty and informative collection of essays on the cosmos. Today I came across an essay entitled “Coming Attractions” in the section appropriately called When the universe turns bad. The essay details what will happen in 2036 if the asteroid Apophis (the Egyptian goddess of darkness and death) swings too close to Earth in 2029. It’s bad news, basically. Here is the essay; the talk below amends the Apophis portion and contains the really scary shit.