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A Universe From Nothing

Book Review

I really don't know why I picked up this book. There's a non-zero chance it was commended to me from Bob Diller, but it is just as likely to have come from one of the Twitter, Slack, or MB communities I'm in. I have no idea where I picked it up. It did, however, sit on my to-read pile for a good three months. Well, it sat in my Hold pile at the library, which is worse, because those I need to actually read in a timely manner when my loan happens.

Right. I did mention that my book reviews are really stories about how I came upon this book? I swear I did mention this at some point.

Okay, A Universe From Nothing. Here's the gist: in our mathematical understanding of the universe, there's a transition point from one state of matter to another state of matter by which two mathematical constructs appear seemingly out of nothing. These two particles then disappear, and we're left with a nicely solved equation at the end.

No one knows what's going on, where we started, where the universe is going. What we do know is that we're special in some way, this universe is special in that way, and that we are also not particularly special, as the only way we could exist is if the universe was this particular way.

Given we don't know where we came from and where we're going, some people need s super special thing, entity, supervisor, being, consciousness, something to keep them from being complete and utter assholes. We call these people Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, among others like, Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek, if we are to name some Western deities, ignoring all the Eastern and other ancient ones such as the Egyptians. These people who need a "God" to be kind and good to one another, to not kill, to not covet, to not be the epitome of a tragedy of the commons, tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that something can come from nothing, that the Big Bang could be a beginning, that the nothingness you had before life is likely the same as the nothingness after life and you didn't complain about that before so why are you complaining about that after, use "because God" is a cop-out for sitting with the discomfort and examining the world in around them in a scientific, repeatable, factful way.

Which is a bit less nice than the way Kraus said it.

Kraus goes into the quantum mechanics and history of astrophysics, with an eye to explaining that the universe came from nothing.

My difficulties with Kraus' writing is its defensive nature and sometimes backwards logic of his statements. A couple times he declares our mathematical models of the universe says this, the evidence supports it, so there if the models are correct. We know this not to be statement one can make, given the nature of quantum physics, the level of what we just don't know, and how physics as evolved over the last hundreds of years. We just don't know. I can, however, understand how saying, "we believe" each time could undercut the strength of his statements, but the backwards logic really annoyed me. While nothing might be unstable, Nature doesn't care one bit about our mathematical models or if they fit.

If you enjoy reading about quantum mechanics, science history, and some levels of philosophy thrown in, this is a good read. If none of those interest you, and you need to read this book for a book club or class, and you grab the audiobook, be sure to look at the diagrams in the books. They are useful. To everyone else, okay to skip this book. I'm glad I read it, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't enjoy reading science.

Hubble had earlier made a significant breakthrough in 1925 with the new Mount Wilson 100-inch Hooker telescope, then the world’s largest.
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I just love this mountain. You can see it from school, hike it in day, drive up in a couple hours, and see the ocean on a clear day from the top. Just love it.

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.
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Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.
Location 269 (yeah, I hate location instead of pages, too)

I usually never get that far in my discussion, of course, because data rarely impress people who have decided in advance that something is wrong with the picture.
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This means that these supernovae are very good “standard candles.” By this we mean that these supernovae can be used to calibrate distances because their intrinsic brightness can be directly ascertained by a measurement that is independent of their distance. If we observe a supernova in a distant galaxy—and we can because they are very bright—then by observing how long it shines, we can infer its intrinsic brightness. Then, by measuring its apparent brightness with our telescopes, we can accurately infer just how far away the supernova and its host galaxy are. Then, by measuring the “redshift” of the light from the stars in the galaxy, we can determine its velocity, and thus can compare velocity with distance and infer the expansion rate of the universe.
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Kepler derived his famous three laws of planetary motion early in the seventeenth century: 1. Planets move around the Sun in ellipses. 2. A line connecting a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. 3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube (3rd power) of the semi-major axis of its orbit (or, in other words, of the “semi-major axis” of the ellipse, half of the distance across the widest part of the ellipse).
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the universe is big and old and, as a result, rare events happen all the time.
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There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. —DONALD RUMSFELD
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But how can you measure the three-dimensional geometry of the whole visible universe? It’s easier to start with a simpler question: How would you determine if a two-dimensional object like the Earth’s surface was curved if you couldn’t go around the Earth or couldn’t go above it in a satellite and look down? First, you could ask a high school student, What is the sum of the angles in a triangle? (Choose the high school carefully, however . . . a European one is a good bet.) You would be told 180 degrees, because the student no doubt learned Euclidean geometry—the geometry associated with flat pieces of paper. On a curved two-dimensional surface like a globe, you can draw a triangle, the sum of whose angles is far greater than 180 degrees. For example, consider drawing a line along the equator, then making a right angle, going up to the North Pole, then another right angle back down to the equator, as shown below. Three times 90 is 270, far greater than 180 degrees. Voilà!
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Well, whenever experimentalists find a new method to measure something with vastly greater precision than was possible before, that is often sufficient motivation for them to go ahead.
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In astronomy, the most recent observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation allow us to compare with theoretical predictions at the level of perhaps 1 part in 100,000, which is remarkable. However, using Dirac’s equation, and the predicted existence of virtual particles, we can calculate the value of atomic parameters and compare them with observations and have remarkable agreement at the level of about 1 part in a billion or better! Virtual particles therefore exist.
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The proton is intermittently full of these virtual particles and, in fact, when we try to estimate how much they might contribute to the mass of the proton, we find that the quarks themselves provide very little of the total mass and that the fields created by these particles contribute most of the energy that goes into the proton’s rest energy and, hence, its rest mass.
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Indeed, in a strange coincidence, we are living in the only era in the history of the universe when the presence of the dark energy permeating empty space is likely to be detectable. It is true that this era is several hundred billion years long, but in an eternally expanding universe it represents the mere blink of a cosmic eye.
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Lemaître’s conclusion that our universe had to begin in a Big Bang was unavoidable, but it was based on an assumption that will not be true for the observable universe of the far future. A
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everything we know about the universe today, the future I have sketched out is the most plausible one, and it is fascinating to consider whether logic, reason, and empirical data might still somehow induce future scientists to infer the correct underlying nature of our universe, or whether it will forever remain obscured behind the horizon.
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I should point out, nevertheless, that even though incomplete data can lead to a false picture, this is far different from the (false) picture obtained by those who choose to ignore empirical data to invent a picture of creation that would otherwise contradict the evidence of reality (young earthers, for example), or those who instead require the existence of something for which there is no observable evidence whatsoever (like divine intelligence) to reconcile their view of creation with their a priori prejudices, or worse still, those who cling to fairy tales about nature that presume the answers before questions can even be asked. At least the scientists of the future will be basing their estimates on the best evidence available to them, recognizing as we all do, or at least as scientists do, that new evidence may cause us to change our underlying picture of reality.
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We are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful.
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By forgetting that most of the time nothing of note occurs during the day, we then misread the nature of probability when something unusual does occur: among any sufficiently large number of events, something unusual is bound to happen just by accident.
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Our universe is so vast that, as I have emphasized, something that is not impossible is virtually guaranteed to occur somewhere within it. Rare events happen all the time.
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I want to stress this because, in discussions with those who feel the need for a creator, the existence of a multiverse is viewed as a cop-out conceived by physicists who have run out of answers—or perhaps questions. This may eventually be the case, but it is not so now.
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After all, the world of our experience is not ten-dimensional, but rather four-dimensional. Something has to happen to the remaining six spatial dimensions, and the canonical explanation of their invisibility is that they are somehow “compactified”—that is, they are curled up on such small scales that we cannot resolve them on our scales or even on the tiny scales that are probed by our highest energy particle accelerators today.
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After all, if one fundamental quantity in nature is actually an environmental accident, why aren’t most or all of the other fundamental parameters? Maybe all of the mysteries of particle theory can be solved by invoking the same mantra: if the universe were any other way, we could not live in it.
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I don’t mind not knowing. It doesn’t scare me. —RICHARD FEYNMAN
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Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest physicist of all time, profoundly changed the way we think about the universe in many ways. But perhaps the most important contribution he made was to demonstrate the possibility that the entire universe is explicable. With his universal law of gravity, he demonstrated for the first time that even the heavens might bend to the power of natural laws. A strange, hostile, menacing, and seemingly capricious universe might be nothing of the sort.
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We do not know for certain which of them actually describes our universe, and perhaps we shall never know. But the point is, as I emphasized at the very beginning of this book, the final arbiter of this question will not come from hope, desire, revelation, or pure thought. It will come, if it ever does, from an exploration of nature. Dream or nightmare, as Jacob Bronowski said in the opening quote in the book—and one person’s dream in this case can easily be another’s nightmare—we need to live our experience as it is and with our eyes open. The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.
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Here I want to once again beat what I wish were a dead horse.
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Indeed, I have challenged several theologians to provide evidence contradicting the premise that theology has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years at least, since the dawn of science. So far no one has provided a counterexample. The most I have ever gotten back was the query, “What do you mean by knowledge?”
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Newton’s work dramatically reduced the possible domain of God’s actions, whether or not you attribute any inherent rationality to the universe.
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While dispensing with this particular use of angels has had little impact on people’s willingness to believe in them (polls suggest far more people believe in angels in the United States than believe in evolution), it is fair to say that progress in science since Newton has even more severely constrained the available opportunities for the hand of God to be manifest in his implied handiwork.
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Consider an electron-positron pair that spontaneously pops out of empty space near the nucleus of an atom and affects the property of that atom for the short time the pair exists.
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There was potential for their existence, certainly, but that doesn’t define being any more than a potential human being exists because I carry sperm in my testicles near a woman who is ovulating, and she and I might mate. Indeed, the best answer I have ever heard to the question of what it would be like to be dead (i.e., be nonbeing) is to imagine how it felt to be before you were conceived. In any case, if potential to exist were the same as existence, then I am certain that by now masturbation would be as hot button a legal issue as abortion now is.
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But plausibility itself, in my view, is a tremendous step forward as we continue to marshal the courage to live meaningful lives in a universe that likely came into existence, and may fade out of existence, without purpose, and certainly without us at its center.
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Even well after the theoretical arguments about why the universe should be flat were first proposed, my observational colleagues, during the 1980s and even early 1990s, remained bent on proving otherwise. For, after all, in science one achieves the greatest impact (and often the greatest headlines) not by going along with the herd, but by bucking against it.
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I would now like to describe how, if our universe arose from nothing, a flat universe, one with zero total Newtonian gravitational energy of every object, is precisely what we should expect.
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This “negative pressure” implies that, as the universe expands, the expansion dumps energy into space rather than vice versa.
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Science simply forces us to revise what is sensible to accommodate the universe, rather than vice versa.
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These “quantum fluctuations” imply something essential about the quantum world: nothing always produces something, if only for an instant.
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As a result, when it falls into the black hole, the net system of the black hole plus the particle actually has less energy than it did before the particle fell in! The black hole therefore actually gets lighter after the particle falls in by an amount that is equivalent to the energy carried away by the radiated particle that escapes. Eventually the black hole may radiate away entirely.
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Scientists began to understand in the 1970s, however, that it is possible to begin with equal amounts of matter and antimatter in an early hot, dense Big Bang, and for plausible quantum processes to “create something from nothing” by establishing a small asymmetry, with a slight excess of matter over antimatter in the early universe.
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Because once an asymmetry between matter and antimatter was created, nothing could later put it asunder.
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These are open questions. However, unless one can come up with a good reason for excluding such configurations from the quantum mechanical sum that determines the properties of the evolving universe, and to date no such good reason exists that I know of, then under the general principle that holds everywhere else I know of in nature—namely that anything that is not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen—it seems most reasonable to consider these possibilities.
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These issues have been debated and discussed for millennia, by brilliant and not-so-brilliant minds, many of the latter making their current living by debating them.
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Either way, what is really useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal specifically how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving and the processes that ultimately operationally govern our existence.
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As I have also argued, one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. 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.
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Afterword by Richard Dawkins

As Krauss and a colleague wittily put it, “We live at a very special time . . . the only time when we can observationally verify that we live at a very special time!”
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If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.
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