Book Review: A Universe from Nothing

Book Review

A Universe from Nothing:
Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing

By Lawrence M. Krauss

Review by William Cooney


Lawrence M. Krauss is no doubt among the most accomplished particle physicists of our time, and yet he and the scientific theories he expounds upon are brilliantly accessible in this, his ninth book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.

Going in, I was prepared to be immediately overwhelmed by the subject matter, but was amazed by its uncomplicated reasoning as well as its consistently approachable sentence structure. As challenged as I was, I nonetheless never felt abandoned to an “only-another-scientist-could-possibly-understand-this-stuff” kind of desperation. Krauss has that rare talent as a writer, one that allows him to bring in—and hold—the attention of the most modest of intellects and readers, among whom I surely count myself.

To answer the question Why is there something rather than nothing? Krauss asserts that he must reassess the terms and parameters of the debate. “Nothing” must first be defined in order to make sense of this process. To the religious believer, nothingness is simple; it is the absence of being. Fair enough. To the cosmologist, nothingness is more accurately defined as emptiness, i.e., space wherein nothing—neither matter nor energy—exists. The only escape from the religious nothingness is the intervention of an all-powerful creature who must serve as the “first cause” of all things. The problem is that invoking a god creature to cease what is essentially an infinite regress is simply arbitrary; whereas, the scientist continues on down the hard road of inquisitiveness. After all, the question Where did God come from? surely deserves an answer as well.

The basic problem, according to particle physicists, is that “nothingness” is unstable. In a cosmological void, there appear, for infinitesimally short periods of time, tiny particles and their antiparticle cohorts, i.e., quantum fluctuations, that borrow energy from—and then annihilate—each other! Krauss seems to be telling us that this is the natural state of so-called nothingness—or emptiness. Religious thinkers, however, claim that this is not true nothingness. In a sense, Krauss must concede that in the cosmic void their does exist something, and that something is “potential.” But is potential real? As one can imagine, a slippery glide into a philosophical quagmire can soon follow.

Krauss also accedes, in a way, on another point: the idea that the nothingness he is referring to “exists” only where there is space and space-time. The astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) was the first to show that the universe is expanding, and to date his postulations have been widely affirmed. But it also appears that the universe itself is expanding at a rate faster than the speed of light! Does this mean that a more genuine “nothingness” lies outside the edge of this expanding universe, beyond space-time? And if so, would Krauss’s nothingness still hold the potential for these strange quantum fluctuations?

A Universe from Nothing delves into many of the fundamentals of the so-called Standard Model of physics and its four basic forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), among many other astronomical theories. And I, for one, am not qualified to make much sense of them.

The beauty of this book is that one needn’t be well versed in the scientific study of the universe and its origins to find comfort in the explanations Krauss is offering, as well as joy in the mere act of reading about them. Of course those with an astronomy or particle physics background will no doubt appreciate the book on another level altogether. But for the rest of us I say Take the plunge; let sink in whatever sinks in, and enjoy the ride!