Lawrence Krauss’s new book on the history of modern physics

Physicist Lawrence Krauss made quite a stir with his previous book, A Universe From Nothing. He took a lot of flak for defining “nothing” as a quantum vacuum, which of course could indeed produce a universe through the appearance of particles that pop into and out of existence, yielding the Big Bang. Theologians and philosophers, affronted, quibbled about the definition of “nothing” (see this review by David Albert, which is mean-spirited but makes a point.) But for a refutation of the “something from nothing” issue, see Michael Shermer’s latest column in Scientific American: “Why humans prefer to be the center of the universe,” where, inspired by Krauss’s new book (below) and others, Michael compiles a list of six responses, including this:

Nothing is nonsensical. It is impossible to conceptualize nothing—not only no space, time, matter, energy, light, darkness or conscious beings to perceive the nothingness but not even nothingness. In this sense, the question is literally inconceivable.

and this telling argument:

Nothing would include God’s nonexistence. In Leslie and Kuhn’s taxonomy of “nothings,” they list what categories of things might be included in “something” that would be negated by “nothing”: physical, mental, platonic, spiritual and God. . . .

But to the issue at hand: Krauss has a new book, The Greatest Story Ever Told. . . So Far: Why Are We Here?coming out on March 21. The title is of course an antitheistic riff on the 1965 movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, a biography of Jesus.  This book, however, appears to deal mostly with the history of quantum mechanics and the Standard Model, so it may be far less controversial.  Given the “why are we here?” bit in the title, though, I suspect Krauss won’t refrain from showing the superfluity of God in physics. Here’s the summary from Amazon:

In the beginning there was light but more than this, there was gravity. After that, all hell broke loose…This is how the story of the greatest intellectual adventure in history should be introduced – how humanity reached its current understanding of the universe, one that is far removed from the realm of everyday experience. Krauss connects the world we know with the invisible world all around us, which is removed from intuition and direct sensation. He explains our current understanding of nature and the struggle to construct the greatest theoretical edifice ever assembled, the Standard Model of Particle Physics — and then to understand its implications for our existence. Writing in the critically acclaimed style of A Universe from Nothing, Krauss celebrates the beauty and wonders of the natural world and details our place within it and how this shapes our understanding of it. Krauss makes this story accessible through profiles of the scientists responsible for these advances, and clear explanations of their discoveries. Krauss takes us on a tour of science and the brilliant personalities who shaped it, often against political and religious indoctrination, enduring persecution and ostracism. Krauss creates a captivating blend of research and narrative to invite us into the lives and minds of these figures, creating a landmark work of scientific history.

The Amazon page includes a lot of short blurbs, including Eric Idle’s endorsement: “I loved the fight scenes and the sex scenes were excellent”. Here’s Shermer’s own blurb:

“In every debate I’ve done with theologians and religious believers their knock-out final argument always comes in the form of two questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? and Why are we here? The presumption is that if science provides no answers then there must be a God. But God or no, we still want answers. In A Universe From Nothing Lawrence Krauss, one of the biggest thinkers of our time, addressed the first question with verve, and in The Greatest Story Ever Told he tackles the second with elegance. Both volumes should be placed in hotel rooms across America, in the drawer next to the Gideon Bible.” — Michael Shermer

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I will of course be reading this book (Lawrence: if you’re reading this, send me a free copy!), and, while I’m at it, would like to recommend another good book on quantum mechanics, which is much tougher going but immensely rewarding. It’s this one (click on screenshot to go to Amazon page), which summarizes the history of QM in 40 episodic chapters.

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27 Comments

  1. Posted January 19, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    [Krauss] took a lot of flak for defining “nothing” as a quantum vacuum, … (see this review by David Albert, which is mean-spirited but makes a point.)

    Krauss didn’t just define “nothing” as a quantum vacuum. His strategy through the book was to gradually strip down the “nothingness” to more and more complete concepts of “nothing”.

    Thus, he fully recognised that a quantum vacuum could be regarded as a “something”, and thus went on to speculate how the quantum vacuum itself could arise from “nothing” (namely, a quantum *gravity* fluctuation may not even need a quantum vacuum to start with).

    That’s why David Albert’s mean-spirited review was unfair and didn’t really have a point — Krauss had indeed already considered the point that Albert raised.

    • strongforce
      Posted January 19, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Zach
      Posted January 19, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      This terror, then, this darkness of the mind,
      Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
      Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
      But only Nature’s aspect and her law,
      Which, teaching us, hath this exordium:
      Nothing from nothing ever yet was born.
      Fear holds dominion over mortality
      Only because, seeing in land and sky
      So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
      Men think Divinities are working there.
      Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
      Nothing can be create[d], we shall divine
      More clearly what we seek: those elements
      From which alone all things created are,
      And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.

      Lucretius wrote that around the same time Jesus was preaching his apocalyptic Judaism. I think it’s high time we recognize the first sentence of the Bible for the lie it is because (1) nothing can come from nothing, so there must have always been something (even if that something was only a quantum vacuum) and (2) because it’s self-contradictory, because God was ostensibly there.

      “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a silly, nonsensical religious question based on a false premise, much like “Why is there evil in the world?” We should stop feeling like we have to answer it.

      • Posted January 20, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Bunge calls the “nothing from nothing” principle the most basic of conservation laws and the “Lucretius principle” in honour of this poetic expression of it.

    • eric
      Posted January 19, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      I was going to say the same thing, however, this may just end up being a quibble about timing.

      Krauss *did* take a lot of flak for defining nothing…before he wrote his book. I would even bet that the negative reception to his initial verbal public comments about ‘nothing’ was at least one of the things that prompted him to write it. Then he wrote the book which, as you say, is fairly methodical and even-handed about treating all the multiple possible definitions of ‘nothing.’

    • Posted January 21, 2017 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      That’s interesting, but I think there’s an even more important point in Krauss’s favor. Namely, when everyday people worry about “something from nothing”, they’re not using the ancient philosophers’ hyper-extended notion of “thing” such that, for example, even time itself would be a “thing”. They’re concerned about matter/energy, which in their experience, and in their high-school physics, can transform and relocate, but not utterly disappear or appear.

      Against that background, some modern cosmological theories are truly baffling to common sense. Krauss does the public a big favor by clearing up the confusion.

      For philosophers to claim that their favored understanding of “nothing” is the one that counts, is both arrogant and idiotic.

  2. Tamethyst
    Posted January 19, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This riposte from the godly should be met with “Well, why did your god bother making anything, after all hadn’t he been sitting there on his own for previous eternity prior to creating it all?” Hmm?

    • Voltaire
      Posted January 19, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

      Why not?

  3. strongforce
    Posted January 19, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendation on Baggott’s book, just ordered it after looking at the reviews. It is difficult to find science books that are written in the “sweet spot”, i.e. not too technical/mathematical but still rigorous and require at least a college-level science background.

  4. Posted January 19, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Shermer’s correction of the Jewish word translated in Genesis to “separated” instead of “created”is a very good point. Most mythologies about the so-called creation of the world tells about how the sky/heavens came to be separated from the earth.

  5. Kevin
    Posted January 19, 2017 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry, I will buy you a copy. And if Lawrence gives you a free copy you can give the one I give you away. 🐬

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 19, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Re: Shermer’s recommendation on hotel rooms

    Perhaps in the future there will be modified lyrics to the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”

    Rocky Raccoon
    stepped into his room
    Only to find “Why we’re here”
    Rocky had come,
    equipped with a gun,
    To shoot down that damn buccaneer.

    and later…

    Now Rocky Raccoon,
    he fell back in his room,
    Only to find “Why we’re here”
    Larry Krauss had checked out,
    and he left it, no doubt,
    To help with Rocky’s good cheer.

    =-=-=

    The movie “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was based on a popular (but poorly written IMO) novel of the same name in turn based on a series of radio broadcasts of the same name, and the film did so poorly it killed Bible movies in Hollywood for at least 10 years.

    Virtually all other films directed by George Stevens (Place in the Sun, Shane, etc.) are really good.

  7. Posted January 19, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  8. Posted January 19, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Since there is something, I don’t the nothing implies God’s non-existence argument would bother the faithful. If anything, they might think it bolsters their case.

    • Posted January 19, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      …I don’t expect the nothing…

    • eric
      Posted January 19, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      When they say nothing, they really mean “nothing except God”. They need God to create the something, so he has to be there before the something – he can’t be part of what we consider ‘something’. Moreover, claiming that ‘nothing’ = nonexistence of God implies that God is not a necessary being, which undermines Plantinga and every other theologian’s version of the Ontological Argument all the way back to Anselm (IIRC).

      So yeah, I think they’d be pretty upset at the idea that the true nothing the philosophers speak of would include the nonexistence of God.

  9. Posted January 19, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Baggott’s The Quantum Story (recommended) has been reprinted as part of the excellent Oxford Landmark Science series along with The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, Nick Lane’s Oxygen and a little thing called Why Evolution is True.

    I’m currently reading Kathleen Taylor’s Brainwashing which is also part of that series.

  10. icarustpenguin
    Posted January 19, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Why is there something rather than nothing?
    Who cares, and if there were nothing you wouldn’t.

    Why are we here?
    Because we have no choice.

  11. Sixtus
    Posted January 19, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    As long ago as the middle ages, Jewish scholar Rashi (1040 – 1105) had pointed out that the original Hebrew of the first words of Genesis should be interpreted as a temporal clause. That yields “When God began to create heaven and earth,” which is how my copy of the Jewish Study Bible (2nd ed. 2014, Oxford) has it. (Some Christian Bibles, though not those most often used by fundamentalists and evangelicals, also have a similar wording, though sometimes only as an optional reading.) Time was already running when God stepped in. This reading combined with the next phrase’s pre-existing earth (“unformed and void”), pre-existing “deep” and pre-existing “waters” shows that Genesis 1:1 is not speaking about the creation ex nihilo of everything at the beginning of time. Imagine how much ink (or, nowadays, character bytes) could have been saved over the centuries if this interpretation had dominated.

    http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165#showrashi=true

    • Posted January 20, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      What does Rashi say about “Elohim” being plural? That’s also a problem for the traditional views …

  12. Dale Franzwa
    Posted January 20, 2017 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    For those of you committed to the concept that “nothing” is a non-starter (there has always been something). then please explain those virtual particles that pop into and out of existence in physics labs. The behavior of those particles serves as the basis for Krauss’ argument that the universe arose from nothing.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 20, 2017 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand the wording of your post Dale. The bit in brackets is what you think or what you think the others think? 🙂

      Here I quote a paragraph written by the particle physicist Matt Strassler over at his web site on the subject of “Virtual Particles: What are they?”

      QUOTE The best way to approach this concept, I believe, is to forget you ever saw the word “particle” in the term. A virtual particle is not a particle at all. It refers precisely to a disturbance in a field that is not a particle. A particle is a nice, regular ripple in a field, one that can travel smoothly and effortlessly through space, like a clear tone of a bell moving through the air. A “virtual particle”, generally, is a disturbance in a field that will NEVER be found on its own, but instead is something that is caused by the presence of other particles, often of other fields. END OF QUOTE [I capitalised the “never” above]

      Thus we know these fluctuations do indeed come into existence & then disappear, but it’s within an environment that has the properties of time, the dimensions of space plus fields &/or particles. It has been argued that it’s possible our universe arose from a process involving virtual particles, but then it requires that there was some sort of pre-existing ‘something’ [the vacuum or similar], that had the properties I mention above, to allow for the creation of virtual particles.

      So as far as I can tell the ‘nothing’ of which you write is ‘something’ with quite a few properties.

      • Dale Franzwa
        Posted January 21, 2017 at 12:02 am | Permalink

        I’ll reply to both the above comments here. Perhaps my idea of “virtual particles” is not quite what others is. However, they do appear and disappear. Into nothing is the simplest conclusion. If we’re talking about some other form of reality, then I’d want some evidence of that not just arguments.

        Of course Krauss’ book is titled: A Universe from Nothing. I’ll be interested in seeing if he has changed his mind.

        Stephan Hawking has also advocated the origin of the universe as coming from nothing (a few years ago he made a TV series, titled after his book The Grand Design, in one program of which he explains how that is possible. I won’t go into the details here but his explanation corresponds to a theory I’ve mentioned a couple of times (or so) on this site, The Zero Energy Universe.

        Hawking explicitly states that “nothing” (from which the universe arises) is a condition in which neither time nor space (or anything else) exists. He makes the point that not even a god can exist there since that god would not have time nor space in which to act.

        • Posted January 21, 2017 at 4:37 am | Permalink

          If Hawking’s “nothing” lacks time, then on his view, there has always been something. At least, if we interpret “always” as: for all times t, it is the case that … .

          • Dale Franzwa
            Posted January 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

            Nonsense.

  13. Diane G.
    Posted January 20, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    sub

  14. kelskye
    Posted January 20, 2017 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s strange just how many people use the “something from nothing” line of argumentation. It seems to me to warrant two responses:
    a) that there’s no reason to think that absolute nothing was the state of things.
    b) arguments for the existence of God must be a poor way indeed if they have to go as far as claiming existence itself as the reason to believe.

    I’m looking forward to Krauss’ new book, though I really should make some time for Sean Carroll’s most recent first. Just got to finish Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project first.


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