Rosenbaum: Read Jim Holt’s Brilliant Book About the Origins of the Universe

Scrutinizing culture.
July 23 2012 2:53 PM

Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed?

In his quest to understand the origins of the universe, Jim Holt stands up for the big 0.

(Continued from Page 1)

There’s a similarity in these unsolvable mysteries: Poets are the physicists of love, but, as I suggested, in Larkin’s case at least, their work is marked by humility, a tender tentativeness. Whereas physicists tend to be know-it-alls. Ever since the success of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, it seems like all a physicist needs to do to get a book contract is claim to explain how the universe emerged. There’s Alan Guth’s The Inflationary Universe, Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality, and, more recently, Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing.

This is why I want to spotlight a new development, an admission that was overlooked in the Higgs hype, a disguised concession of defeat by one of the “nothing theorists.” The best way to begin to understand the substance and importance of this new development—I’d call it a shocking confession—and the small but cosmically important war that has broken out over nothing in the past few months among physicists and philosophers is to follow Jim Holt’s thrilling and comprehensive study of nothingness, his “Existential Detective Story,” hinting at a quest that offers all the drama of the best noirs.

And the most important aspect of Holt's quest, to my mind is his stringency about the nature and definition of nothing.

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About that stringency: One of the virtues of Holt’s inquiry is that he sets the bar high for nothingness. He won’t let just anything qualify as nothing. Nothing is not mere emptiness, nothing is not just a vacuum, which can be riddled with waves and particles and possesses extension, dimension, temporality, or at least laws.

Holt refreshingly dismisses those who propose inadequate explanations of what nothing is and then crow about having solved the problem.

He has no patience with the shortcut that so many pop cosmologists use—the “inflationary universe” theory—which doesn’t really explain how something came from nothing, but how something really, really big came from something really, really small.

Early on he quotes Russian-born Stanford physicist Andrei Linde, one of the early proponents of the “inflationary universe” theory: “When I invented the theory of chaotic inflation,” Linde tells Holt, “I found that the only thing needed to get a universe like ours started is a hundred thousandth of a gram of matter. ... That’s enough to create a small chunk of vacuum that blows up into billions and billions of galaxies we see around us. It looks like cheating but that’s how the inflation theory works ....” It doesn’t look like cheating, to him, but to others ….

He starts with a chunk of matter without providing any explanation of where said chunk, however small, might have come from. And then he claims the chunk of matter creates a “chunk” of “false vacuum,” (you might call that the “creation of nothing from something”) and having assumed that, he huffs and puffs and “inflates” the chunk to the size of the universe using laws that came from where exactly?

It takes Holt 150 pages or so of travelling the world interrogating the nothing theorists to find one who gives what he believes to be an adequate definition of nothing—the nothing we seek to find, the one that qualifies for the “how do we get something from nothing” question.

This comes in his conversation with the physicist and cosmologist Alex Vilenkin, and it’s worth listening to what a stringent definition of nothing really is:

“Imagine,” Holt asks us, paraphrasing Vilenkin, “spacetime [the matrix we live in] has the surface of a sphere. ... Now suppose that this sphere is shrinking like a balloon that is losing its air. The radius grows smaller and smaller. Eventually—try to imagine this—the radius goes all the way to zero.”

Pause for a moment to think of a sphere whose radius has gone “all the way to zero.” No time. No space. It’s hard—but not impossible—to get your head around it. Now back to Holt:

“The surface of the sphere disappears completely and with it spacetime itself. We have arrived at nothingness. We have also arrived at a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius. This is the most complete and utter nothingness that scientific concepts can capture. It is mathematically devoid not only of stuff but also of location and duration.” Nothing is nowhere.

It’s not anything like a chunk of vacuum because a chunky vacuum has extension. It’s not anything like anything. It’s nothing.

Now let’s look at the important controversy that broke out when a distinguished physicist and historian of science tried to apply Holt and Vilenkin’s stringency to one of the nothing theorist’s books. What resulted was some of the most distinguished minds in the world hurling around epithets like “moronic,” “dead wrong,” and “absurd.”

In a New York Times book review of Lawrence Krauss’ recent best-seller, A Universe From Nothing, David Albert, a quantum physicist and professor of the philosophy of science at Columbia and the author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience, was, let’s say, unsparing about Krauss’ claim that he had proven how the universe came into being from nothing—well, from Krauss’ definition of nothing, which as we shall see redefines nothing so that it is not nothing at all.

Albert asks:

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that everything he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted.

And as the quantum vacuum—and its fields—that Krauss claims is the nothing from which something emerged, Albert points out that the laws Krauss relies on have “nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

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