One of the most baffling philosophical questions of all time is why we’re here. Or, to put it another way, why is there anything instead of nothing at all? Why does the universe exist and if there’s something outside of the universe that caused the universe to come into being, why does that exist? From any perspective, scientific, religious or otherwise, it seems like no possible answer could be completely satisfying. If one says that things exist because of X, then we have the even more baffling question of where X could have come from.
Lawrence Krauss’ new book, “A Universe From Nothing,” attempts to offer something of a solution to the scientific question of how something can come out of nothing, though he doesn’t pretend to answer the philosophical one. For one thing, when Krauss says “nothing,” he doesn’t mean nothing. The nothing we understand in our universe is what exists between atoms, but even in that, as the book explains, there may be a whole lot going on.
The vacuum of empty space contains a lot of energy — which high tech and state of the art experiments have verified — and even in this empty space, particles can spontaneously appear, popping into existence like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat. If this sounds counterintuitive and baffling to you, you’re not alone. Even after reading this relatively brief book, most readers aren’t going to walk away feeling like they get it. If anything, the book just gives an overview as to how far we’ve come in science: we’ve reached a point where our understanding of the way things work probably can’t be explained on an intuitive level to our puny human brains.
Still, there’s a surprisingly large amount of material here for a book about nothing. Indeed, while “A Universe From Nothing” is technically about nothing, it also happens to be about everything. It takes us from the very beginnings of the universe with the Big Bang to its ultimate end. Much of this is interesting, but an equal amount is confounding and though the words are often simple and grammatically correct, it’s tough to understand how it all relates to reality. Indeed, if reality must be this way, why must it be this way?
On some level, these might seem like religious questions, but Krauss’ book, while not an assault on religion by any means, takes a firm, materialistic stance. These questions can be answered by science, though perhaps not at the moment. Having well-known atheist Richard Dawkins write the afterword (the equally well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens was originally supposed to write the foreword before his untimely death) suggests Krauss’ motivation behind his approach to writing the book.
Still, it’s unlikely to convert anybody. Believers who accept modern science can close the book and marvel at the beautiful and incomprehensible way that a loving creator has designed our universe. Believers won’t be convinced by anything Krauss presents here anyway — it’s more of an explanation than a defense of his views. “A Universe From Nothing” is well written and easy to read, but it offers more of a taste of what the research shows than a clear understanding.