Book Review: A Universe From Nothing

A Universe From Nothing. Lawrence M. Krauss. Simon and Schuster. Atria paperback. 202pgs. $15.

Cosmology isn’t much different from geography. In fact, cosmologists are the universe’s geographers. Cosmologists study the traits, characteristics, and behaviors of our universe. To conduct such studies cosmologists must map the objects of our universe. Every galactic and intergalactic object has a coordinate, a location in 3-dimensional space. Not only do galactic objects have an associated 3-dimensional coordinate but every object is also moving in space and movement involves Time. Therefore, all objects in space not only have 3-dimensional traits but also Time, the 4th dimension.

Geography is about “site” and “situation.” Another approach I use in my geography courses is the use of two questions. “Where is IT?” is a query which helps identify some thing in space. When I say “space” I mean space in the most fundamental definition of space, that is “what are the x, y, z, and time coordinates” of our object of study. Our object is any noun, any person, place, thing, or idea. “Situation” refers to the governing conditions and influences which exist at a location. Conditions might exhibit in the form of landforms, rivers, languages, gravity, or, the absence of such conditions. Sometimes, we can learn as much from exploring why something does not exist as we can from exploring why something does exist.

Cosmologists map objects, stars, other galaxies, placing them in space based on some reference system. These objects are mapped and catalogued, and time after time these objects are re-mapped. These measurements take years, even decades, and in spite of the time between measurements, actually because of the time between measurements, cosmologists can track the velocity of objects moving away from our piece of space. Cosmologists now without a shadow of a doubt we do not live in an eternal and unchanging universe but a universe which is changing every minute of every day, and has been changing for about 13.7 billion years.

Cosmologists know distances to objects based on a number of scientific methods. For short distances, less than about 10,000 light-years, cosmologists can use relatively simple geometric relationships between the Earth, Sun, and distance star. Beyond 10,000 light-years, cosmologists can use a stellar object, a Type IA supernova. These supernovas shine with a uniform brightness, a brightness called a “standard candle.” More distance supernova are less bright than closer supernova and distances can be determined by the change in brightness. For very distance objects, the Doppler Shift of light can be used to measure distance. Sound waves compress as a moving object moves towards the listener; as the object moves away from the listener the sound waves become further and further apart. Light behaves the same way. Light moving towards an observer compresses and shifts towards the blue part of the spectrum. Light moving away from an observer gets stretched-out, lengthens, and becomes more red. The greater the amount of stretch, the more red the light becomes. Very distance objects moving very fast will at some point shift to the infrared and become invisible to the naked eye.

A Universe From Nothing by L. Krauss

A Universe From Nothing by L. Krauss

Cosmology is a hobby of mine. When I am not reading crime fiction, or economics, I read physics, astronomy, and cosmology books. Lawrence Krauss’ offering, A Universe From Nothing (AUFN), is a very readable book for anyone interested in the current science behind cosmology. In fact, I might recommend AUFN before reading any of Brian Greene’s books, Krauss’ book is quite good.

The notion empty space is not ’empty’ I find challenging to wrap my mind around. Empty space not being empty is an idea which requires unlearning considerable amounts of science. Space does have energy. Empty space is not empty but a seething and broiling miasma of energy. Positrons popping into and out of existence. Virtual particles popping into and out of existence. Yes, you read that correct – virtual particles. The most mind-blowing concept espoused by Krauss within his book is the idea of virtual particles giving rise to real particles, which give rise to atoms, molecules, and eventually you and I. Before reading AUFN I had never run across references to virtual particles. I’ve read Feynman, listened to many Susskind lectures, listened and watched many lectures on quantum mechanics and quantum physics and I guess I didn’t really pay attention, as I can’t remember ever hearing about virtual particles and their effects on real particles. But, what are virtual particles? Virtual particles are particles who’s lives are too short to measure. We can only see their effects on real particles. Yes, after reading Chapter 4 “Much Ado About Nothing,” I was left wondering if we really are just living in a simulator of some other entity, and all of “this” is simply a very elaborate matrix.

In about two weeks NASA will be releasing a paper through AAAS detailing what many suspect is the first paper published on the existence of Dark Matter. Many physicists lean towards space being filled with WIMPs, weakly interactive massive particles. If WIMPs truly are at the core of Dark Matter, then the pursuit of Dark Energy may be emboldened, making for a resolution to the Dark Energy conundrum not far off.

Krauss writes with an exuberance rarely found in science literature. Krauss’ enthusiasm and passion is inherent throughout the book. When writing about string theory, Krauss himself seems bewildered by the sheer complexity with which our universe appears to operate:

“In the simplest version of the theory, such infinite predictions can be obviated only if the strings that make up elementary particles are vibrating, not merely in three dimensions of space and one of time that we are familiar with, but rather in twenty-six dimensions!” (Krauss, 131)

Krauss covers all the major bases in the history of studies related to aging and sizing the universe. His coverage of contributions to the study of particle physics, of stars, of aging the universe, of sizing the universe is a great portion of why the book is a good starting point for a person not conversant in cosmology but wants to be. Coverage is brief, to be sure, but succinct and he hits all major people and significant events within cosmology and astronomy. The strength of Krauss’ writing is he can speak about all of these historic events in terms and images which are accessible to anyone wanting more knowledge about what we know about the universe, and how we have come to discover our knowledge. How do we know the age of the universe? Can we see the edge of the universe? If we see the edge of the universe aren’t we really looking at the beginning of Time itself? If you think about questions such as these Krauss’ book is definitely one you need to add to your library.

Part of Krauss’ message points out is how recent our knowledge really is, how new these discoveries are, how many more questions remain, how much remains undiscovered. Our time is the best time to be alive; any earlier and the empirical evidence needed for our science might not exist yet. If we were alive any later, our picture of the universe would be different and we might not have the same empirical evidence as today. In fact, a few billion years, the only stars visible will be only those in our own galaxy. Later still, we will have only the light of our own sun. All due to the expansion of our universe, the expansion of the space in our universe.

AUFN is not without controversy. Krauss has little affection for philosophical or religious debates regarding the birth of the universe, why we are here, why anything is here, for that matter. The universe needs no Prime Mover, Supreme Being, First Force. These notions, I suspect, Krauss attributes to mythology, early Mankind’s attempt to reason and explain conditions of our existence. Krauss argues there are

“…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 existence of something for which there is no observable evidence. (118)”

For those who find their sensibilities offended by rational and reasonable arguments which argue the universe needs no creator, I recommend skipping the epilogue. I am not offended by such talk. Every religion believes their religion to be the best, most correct, most “true,” whatever “true” means. Hinduism probably offers a perspective which parallels the metaphysics of the universe more so than any other, far more so than any Judeo-Christian viewpoint, in my opinion. A quote common among scientists today goes like this:

“Whether you are discussing evolution, the Big Bang, Inflation, Creationism, or Intelligent Design, a person is welcome to their own opinion, but not welcome to your own facts.”

A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss out in paperback, with a new Foreward by the author. Richard Dawkins has provided an Afterword. The prose is very accessible to most readers. No math is required, only an open mind and some time to think about the ideas Krauss presents. AUFN is a much more readable book than Brian Greene’s series of books on the universe and string theory, and a good starter book for someone looking for a good book to open the door to the physics of our universe. Do not pass this book by.

One thought on “Book Review: A Universe From Nothing

  1. Pingback: My Cosmology Bookshelf | Constant Geography

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