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In the beginning

An artist's impression of the Big Bang.

An artist's impression of the Big Bang.

It's that time again for science to take centre stage. This year, National Science Week will host several events dedicated to exploring the sometimes tenuous relationship between science and religion.

The standout among these is the appearance of Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in the US, who will speak on Friday at Melbourne Town Hall on the vexing question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Among other things, he plans to review key developments in cosmology and particle physics over the past 20 years that have revolutionised our picture of the origin and ultimate destiny of the universe.

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss at CSIRO Discovery Centre.

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss at CSIRO Discovery Centre.

Nature produces surprises greater than anything humans could imagine, Professor Krauss says. Over the past two decades, big discoveries in cosmology, particle theory and gravitation research have changed our world view – with far-reaching implications for understanding the universe's origins.

"The results of the past century have taught us that empty space is, in fact, far from the inviolate nothingness that we presupposed before we learnt more about how nature works," he writes in his book A Universe from Nothing (Simon & Schuster).

In particular, research showing that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate has revealed that most cosmic energy resides in some mysterious form permeating empty space. The discovery, Professor Krauss says, has changed the nature of modern cosmology.

"For one thing, it has produced new support for the idea that our universe arose from precisely nothing," he claims. "It has also provoked us to rethink a host of assumptions about the processes that might govern its evolution and, ultimately, the question of whether the laws of nature are truly fundamental."

So exactly how might everything arise from nothing? "The amazing thing is that we have realised it is possible for the total energy of the universe to be zero," Professor Krauss says. "This defies common sense. But, when you include gravity, it is possible to have negative energy, due to gravitational attraction, as well as positive energy – so the two can balance out."

In other words, we could have a universe brimming with billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and still have zero total energy. "It means one could start from a universe with nothing in it and eventually end in our universe – without violating notions about energy conservation, and with no need for supernatural shenanigans," he says.

Instability

The laws of quantum mechanics, combined with Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, tell scientists that empty space is somehow unstable. This, Professor Krauss explains, suggests that by starting out with nothing inevitably leads to something – provided that one waits for long enough.

Even better, he adds, when gravity is added to quantum mechanics, it is possible to start out with no space and no time, and spontaneously create a universe of space and time – just by relying on the laws of quantum mechanics.

"The characteristics we observe in our universe – involving some of the most earth-shattering discoveries in science – are precisely those we'd expect from a universe that came from nothing via quantum mechanics."

Does this demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt that the universe sprang from nothing? "No," Professor Krauss admits, "but it makes it plausible – and that is worth celebrating."

Two reactions

Professor Krauss' ideas are controversial and not applauded by everyone. "I think Professor Krauss can't do without mathematics and mathematical laws," says Melbourne University philosopher of science Stephen Ames, who is a canon of St Paul's Cathedral.

"Professor Krauss would like to think that these do not contradict his sense of 'nothing'," Dr Ames says. "However, they do have effect – matter and energy 'pop' into existence including a closed universe with the total energy exactly zero."

Dr Ames believes the mathematics and the laws are in the mind of a deity. "If these laws include anything like quantum mechanics – a richer form appropriate to the multiverse – then could the multiverse could 'pop' out of 'nothing'?"

Professor Krauss, he adds, allows that if a deity were the cause of all causes, there would be no question about what created it. "The problem Krauss identifies is that he finds no evidence for belief in such a deity. That opens up another discussion."

Graham Dorrington, who studied applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Britain's Cambridge University and is currently at RMIT University, says there is no quick and convenient route to a understand the principles of cosmology.

"It requires considerable effort to fully understand, like many other topics such as the compositions of Stravinsky, or the intricacies of clockwork mechanisms, or indeed how to make a good spinach souffle with anchovy sauce," Dr Dorrington says.

"The essential language of cosmology is mathematics, not commonplace words which are open to misinterpretation," he points out. "For example, when Professor Krauss uses the word 'nothing', he is actually referring to the observed vacuum of space between galaxies that is now thought to contain virtual particle pairs, and therefore to have a non-zero vacuum energy."

Furthermore, Dr Dorrington reminds, all regions of observable space must contain some radiation.

Some history

The stark realisation that nothing might well be crucial to the evolution of everything came with the recognition that empty space, devoid of all particles and radiation, actually weighs something.

By putting energy in empty space, it becomes gravitationally repulsive, unlike other forms of matter and energy that are gravitationally attractive.

This was proposed at various times by several physicists, Professor Krauss included. Most importantly it was confirmed observationally by two teams that demonstrated the universe's headlong expansion was speeding up. The implication was important: 70 per cent of the universe's energy resides in empty space.

As it turns out, this is exactly the amount of energy scientists were missing when they tried to understand how the universe's total gravitational energy could be zero. "Endowing empty space with energy may make it seem like something rather than nothing, but there really is nothing there – no particles, no radiation, no stuff at all," Professor Krauss says.

Having space may make it different from true nothingness in some people's minds. "This renders the possibility that space itself could suddenly pop into existence more interesting – because most people would agree that no particles and no space is a good approximation to nothing at all. One can even argue that the laws of physics themselves can spontaneously appear when the universe appears. No laws, no space and no stuff – that really sounds like nothing."

But is it really? Critics say the timeless non-space from which the universe is believed to have emerged is perhaps another, more fundamental form of nothingness. Who knows?

A strange theory

Something called M-theory might, in one fell swoop, provide support for Professor Krauss' notion that the universe arose from nothing.

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," writes Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking in his book The Grand Design (Bantam Press), co-authored with physicist Leonard Mlodinow. "If it [the universe] is finite – and this has yet to be proved – it will be a model of a universe that creates itself. We must be part of this universe, because there is no other consistent model."

In a nutshell, M-theory is a fundamental model of physics invoking no less than 11 dimensions. It's an extension of string theory in which particles, usually conceived of as tiny blobs of frozen energy, or even points, are one-dimensional wiggling strings with length but no breadth. The reason only some of the 11 dimensions are experienced, physicists say, is that the other dimensions are imperceptibly curled in on themselves.

By explaining how time existed as a dimension of space for a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang, scientists dispense with the question of what happened before the universe's birth, which apparently arose from a quantum fluctuation.

There is nothing unnatural about this, physicists say: such fluctuations go on all the time in the supposed vacuum of space. In this regard, they form an integral part of Mother Nature's sometimes hard-to-fathom make-up.

No access

The big question is whether M-theory is testable. At the moment, most experts say no, including Oxford University physicist Roger Penrose.

But as experimental techniques improve, M-theory may one day prove to be testable, though exactly how requires a super-stretch of the imagination. After all, scientists have no access to other universes to discover what sorts of bizarre laws might govern them – or indeed, whether they actually exist.

Even if the universe were to be merely the remarkable out-working of a humble quantum fluctuation, at least one unsettling question remains: what was the origin of the laws that gave rise to the cosmic blip in the first place?

"The possibility that many separate universes exist, either separated in space or in extra dimensions, and in each of which the laws of physics might be different, has arisen naturally out of our understanding of particle physics and cosmology," Professor Krauss says. "It provides a landscape to understand not only how our universe, our space and time, could have arisen from nothing, but also how the laws of physics themselves could have arisen naturally, and randomly."

Overall, Professor Krauss requires a multiverse, with all of its possible universes having distinctive laws, in order to explain how our universe could "pop" into existence, supposedly from nothing, concludes Dr Ames.

"So is he really explaining how we get something from nothing?" he asks. "Isn't the multiverse just a 'brute fact'? Alternatively, could the multiverse 'landscape' also have 'popped' into existence, according to some still deeper law?"

Links

Join an audience at St Paul's Cathedral from 10am to midday on August 14 when a panel of experts answers questions from schools: www.scienceweek.net.au/the-search-for-et-and-what-it-means-for-us/

Learn about other science week activities in Victoria at: www.scienceweek.net.au/events/?search-state=VIC&search-type=All+types&search-date-start=Today&search-date-end=All+dates&text=

Find out more about the machinations of M-theory at:

www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/research/gr/public/qg-ss.html

More on Lawrence Krauss at Melbourne Town Hall: http://lifeuniversenothing.org/event/16/view

VCAA link

VELS Level 6 Science:

http://vels.vcaa.vic.edu.au/vels/level6.html

Please send bright ideas for new topics to pspinks@fairfaxmedia.com.au

10 comments

  • So we get a serious academic who's done extraordinary work in a field that most of us have trouble even pronouncing and as 'balance' we get a priest...

    What next? Critiques of bridge engineering by grumpy cat?

    Commenter
    Moloch
    Date and time
    August 12, 2013, 2:42PM
    • Dr. Ames doesn't know if there's a god that started it all, neither does Prof. Krauss. At least Prof. Krauss is honest in his admission. Dr. Ames, however, has to get from his assertion that his god is outside space and time to the specific god he believes in. I presume, because he's catholic, and the pope has decreed, that the science of evolution is accepted by his church., He then has to explain why his god sent his son down to earth to die for the sins of humanity when Eve clearly didn't exist and didn't tempt Adam with an apple egged on by a snake.
      Surely our scientists that have decades of knowledge supported by evidence can one day enjoy the respect of educating the public of their finding without having to endure their findings being balanced against the opinions of others whose assertions have no evidence to support their claims. I hope that day comes soon. Humanity is in trouble and magical thinking isn't going to help solve our problems.

      Commenter
      Roxee
      Date and time
      August 12, 2013, 3:46PM
      • aahh Roxee [Aug 12], the usual dumbed down unsupported blah-blah-blah rubbish! 1) the Catholic faith you mention, is the same one that included the PRIEST who first gave the world the Big Bang Theory [that's the scientific theory, not the TV show] and a MOUNTAIN of other great scientific minds over many centuries, so any time you want to talk "science" the RCC will happily accommodate you and yes that even includes the great MYTH of the Galileo/science persecution. 2) The only "proof" required, is on science is disprove there is a God, not the other way round, the claim to there being a God is much older than modern science - indeed, we Catholics KNOW there is a God, His name is Jesus and luckily for us all, He's a nice bloke! 3) If God does not exist - please evidence for us all just ONE piece of "non-contingent matter" in all of Creation - just ONE? By the way, the RCC "reasoned" this over 1,000yrs ago! 4) Mind you, it's great to see science a making ongoing positive strides - ever since the great Theological Story of Adam naming the animals, it's made considerable progress - the RCC can rightly be pleased with turning it into a profession!

        Commenter
        ExecutiveTruths
        Location
        Passing briefly through this life....
        Date and time
        August 15, 2013, 1:01PM
    • If God aka Allah aka the invisible guy made the world who made the universe and why? I think the scientific brains of the future will be able to provide the answer, then again maybe not. The result is we live for a while in a mystery, so why not enjoy it while we can, after all maybe that's all there is.

      Commenter
      Ferrari25
      Location
      Coffs harbour
      Date and time
      August 15, 2013, 8:41AM
      • Thanks for the link at the bottom but I'm sure you are aware that we are using Ausvels now.

        Commenter
        Missamoo
        Date and time
        August 15, 2013, 9:47AM
        • I have no issues with either side of the argument. For all we know they can both hold true simultaneously. The duality of the argument has the exact same nature. The real question is where does the universes converging purpose come from in the disorder of entropy. I see entropy as the mechanism for diversity and a converging self realizing purpose as the other. This allows for both sides of the argument to hold true. There is a god and there isn't. The one thing I do know is I am therefore god or not it does not preclude an after life if that is what you people here are arguing about really???

          Commenter
          Chris
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          August 15, 2013, 8:11PM
          • Moloch, I agree 100% however it's still a refreshing change to read about something important in The age rather than daily opinion polls, suppositories of knowledge and other mindless election tedium

            Commenter
            Michael
            Date and time
            August 15, 2013, 8:13PM
            • Additionally, Science is an approximation and with respect to god well you may never find out in this life or the next. Whatever you can perceive is always the smallest fraction of what is. We are only human after all

              Commenter
              Chris
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              August 15, 2013, 8:17PM
              • Come on, what happened is so simple. Thinkl abou tit.

                The only reality is that there is nothing. Because, if there was something, something would have had to make it. And that something would have to be made in return.

                So, this theory must be true

                What remains is the question what caused nothing to become something.

                Commenter
                Cologic
                Location
                Netherlands
                Date and time
                August 15, 2013, 9:39PM
                • Speaking of evidence and commenting knowledgably, Dr. Ames is obviously Anglican, not Catholic. Dr. Ames may or may not "know" God exists, the article does not say. As a Christian and a physicist, I find this quite interesting and see nothing which puts science and religion at odds. It appears that the irreligious are as likely to apply their own dogma to scientific inquiry as are fundamentalist religious.

                  Commenter
                  OedipusTex
                  Location
                  McKinney, Texas, USA
                  Date and time
                  August 16, 2013, 5:20AM
                  Comments are now closed
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