Global Atheist Convention – Saturday, 14 April (Part Five)

Lawrence Krauss

Take a pinch of nothing, some random particles, add gravity, quantum mechanics and a soupcon of quantum fluctuation and voila - your own universe - or croquembouche - or something tasty, anyway.

When I was a high school we had a horrible, grumpy science teacher called Mr Fendley.  Mr Fendley didn’t think girls should learn science and I was all too happy to co-operate with a teacher who preferred me to sit in the back of the class day-dreaming than working.

Result? While I topped the state in English, I got 2/100 for my last high school science exam. I recall looking at the paper, casually ticking a couple of multiple choice questions, then strolling nonchalantly out of the room, knowing it would be a completely wasted effort to continue.

I’ve tried to make up for it since, but I fear I have not caught up sufficiently to be able to do justice to the next GAC 2012 speaker, physicist, Laurence Krauss.

I was really looking forward to Krauss’s speech on how the universe could have just ‘appeared’ from nothing. I imagined my next debate with a fundamentalist.

“So,” they sneer, “how did the universe just ‘pop up’ out of nothing?”

And I’d look sickeningly superior and say, “Well, let me tell you ….”

Alas, I fear, that’s another fantasy I’ll never fulfill (that and bonking George Clooney or winning the Grand National like Velvet Brown).

I did try to be attentive. It’s not that he wasn’t interesting and engaging but by the time we got half way through my head was swimming and I’m afraid I rather nodded off.

I can remember thinking, as my chin hit my chest, “I’ll just have to buy the book.”

And that may have to be my advice to you, gentle reader!  I’m sure it’s a very good book, and I will be buying it myself.

It’s called, A Universe from Nothing.

But, I will not wimp out completely, I will try to give you some idea about what this fascinating (but ultimately soporofic) speech was all about.

The important point is that we now know enough about the physics of the universe to say that, theoretically, it is possible for a universe to pop into existence from nothing.

I take it this is roughly equivalent to me peering into the fridge at the end of the week and managing to produce dinner for two out of a couple of stale bits of cheese, a couple of glasses  of cask wine, a slightly brown bit of ageing garlic,  and a six day old bit of left-over French baguette.

Krauss promised to talk about this ‘complex subject’ in a way that even Cardinal Pell would understand.  Either he didn’t succeed or my IQ has dropped alarmingly since I was last tested – I was sure I was at least a little smarter than Pell!

(Krauss did comment that Pell was unique among men, having never thought deeply about anything in his life.)

OK, OK, Lawrence, I’ll buy the bloody book and I’ll think until there’s steam emanating from every orifice to make amends for falling asleep during your speech! OK?

Krauss explained that there are three different theories on what ‘shape’ the universe could be:  Open (i.e. able to expand outward forever), Closed (i.e. able to expand but then prone to contract into a ‘big crunch’), or Flat (in which the expansion will, eventually, slow down*).

Krauss said.we live in a flat universe and this knowledge provides us with the first inkling that something can come from nothing.

Seventy per cent of the energy of the universe, said Krauss, resides in nothing. They know this by weighing the universe.

Now, don’t ask me how they do that, but apparently they can, and when they find that the universe weighs a whole lot less than it should, .they know that 70 per cent is hiding away over there in ‘nothing’.  If only I could do that with 70 per cent of my weight – I could have appeared at the GAC 2012 dinner as a svelte size 10!

“Chrys! What happened to all that weight you were carrying?”

“Oh that? I lost it.”

“Well, good on you!”

“Oh, it was nothing!”

I’d love to tell you that I understand how this all works, but Lawrence has a booby-trap in every corner.

“If someone tells you they understand it,” he says, “they’re lying.”

Well, I’m telling you I don’t understand it, and I can assure you I’m definitely not lying!

The key point seemed to be that empty space – nothing – has energy. (Which is a lot more than I can say for me after three days at GAC 2012!)

We know from experiments that if you create a vacuum ‘virtual’ particles tend to pop in and out so fast you can’t see them, but they can be detected. (Please! Don’t ask me how!)

If you apply gravity, says Krauss, those particles can appear and stay with impunity.

The key point here seems to be that ‘nothing’ is unstable.

So somehow – perhaps in the same way that Adriana Zumbo makes that impossible croquembouche on Masterchef – combining gravity and quantum mechanics and mixing well allows space itself to appear from nothing. Smear on a little icing and you can have your very own universe for tea!

But, if you want to be very clever, add some quantum fluctuation and voila! You will have both space and time! Hardly more difficult than tempering chocolate, I would think.

That thundering sound you just heard is hoards of physicists leaving this blog in droves.

My abject apologies to Professor Krauss. I really was interested and just think, my inability to explain your speech coherently means that many more people will have to buy your book and make you even richer.  I really think I deserve some credit for that!

What’s that, Professor?  2/100 for the effort?  Well, it’s not like I’m unaccustomed to that kind of result for my efforts in science.

*That’s what I have in my notes, but later he said the expansion was speeding up, not slowing down.  Oh dear! My head hurts. Quick, someone pass me another wine!

Chrys Stevenson

5 thoughts on “Global Atheist Convention – Saturday, 14 April (Part Five)

  1. James

    Yep, every galaxy is moving away from every other galaxy at increasing velocity.

    How can every galaxy be moving away from *every other* galaxy? (” … some must be moving towards each other, surely? … “)

    While it sounds weird at first, imagine a lump of dough, with currants, or something, mixed through it. When the dough is baked, the bread expands, and all of the currants move away from each other. The distance separating every single one of them, increases.

  2. Andrew Finden

    I quite enjoyed the lecture I watched of Krauss, he’s witty, winsome, and communicates his subject with infectious passion, but he seems to refuse to accept the common criticism that he’s playing fast and loose with his terms in trying to win a philosophical point on this one.

    Quite simply, the ‘nothing’ that Krauss talks about is not “not anything” in the sense that philosophers mean it when they talk about something coming from ‘nothing’. Krauss’s nothing is still something, and so he hasn’t really answered the question he thinks he has.

    Take this review by Professor David Albert in the NY Times:

    Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

    But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

    It’s little wonder that Krauss, and his colleauge Dawkins dislike philosophy so much, they keep getting 2/100 in it! 😛

  3. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

    As I understand it, Andrew – which is not very well – Krauss is saying that the nature of ‘nothing’ is that it is unstable and so always becomes ‘something’. He readily acknowledges that in order to understand this stuff you have to think about ‘nothing’ differently, but I don’t think it undermines his argument at all. The ‘nothing’ that you conceive – something like your god – appears not to exist.

    1. Andrew Finden

      Chrys, if some thing has a ‘nature’, in this case, being unstable, then it is not, by definition, not anything. His suggestion that we’re just thinking about nothing ‘differently’ is a tricky way of equivocating. Read what philosophers such as Albert (who’s not a believer afaik) are saying. His argument is undermined by the equivocation he commits. Krauss’s argument only works if you shift the posts of the question he’s trying to answer. Krauss’s ‘nothing’ is still something.

      I’m not sure where you ever heard me call God ‘nothing’ but we’ll leave that red herringed attempt at tu quoque alone in any case – it’s Krauss’s argument you put forward, and to which I’m pointing out the flaw.

  4. Pingback: The Bear Necessities « Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear

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