Thursday, September 2, 2010

Something from Nothing

You can’t get something from nothing”, as the old saying goes. But it turns out there is an exception; one thing you CAN get from nothing is – a Universe.

It is truly a remarkable time indeed to be living on this planet. Although there is much yet to learn, for the first time in history humanity is on the cusp of truly understanding how WE came to be. I woke up this morning to the announcement of Stephen Hawking’s latest book “The Grand Design” in which he explains that we need not a god to explain the creation of the universe. The universe can, and most probably did, come from “nothing”.

For a number of years I personally was on the fence as an “Agnostic”. Loosely this definition meant one who did not believe in a Theistic god; and certainly not a mythological biblical god of wrath and salvation. The Agnostic posture allowed me to remain open to the possibility of some “cause” for our ultimate existence. That has since changed as I have educated myself more deeply into the origins of our existence.

This view has also sometimes been referred to as Deism; sort of acceding to god as the ultimate creator for lack of a better explanation. Some of our earliest American scientists were deists; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for example. Their skepticism of organized religion influenced their design in drafting the core governance of this nation. But at that time in history, they had neither sufficiently advanced technology nor the means of experimentation which would come in later times.

But now, Hawking’s contribution is both remarkable and timely in this point in human history. This is not his accomplishment alone but through standing on the shoulders of the giants who came centuries and decades before him; Newton, Einstein, Penrose, Krause, and many more – the combined body of knowledge which has brought us to the cusp of our understanding of our true origins.

Though I am not a sufficiently good enough writer, let alone science writer, to adequately convey the concepts for which I have barely the intellectual skills to grasp myself, I'll give it my best shot:

Essentially, the universe is not made of “nothing”. All that we can see, stars, galaxies, dust, gasses, all the observable “stuff” amount to less than 1% of the makeup of our the universe. What we don’t see is the roughly 70% of the universe that is made up of Dark Matter and the remaining 30% which constitutes Dark Energy.

The stuff we don’t see, the nothing is really not “Nothing”. But more importantly, it fully explains why our universe is expanding and why the rate of expansion is accelerating. And it explains how the preexisting concoction of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, like fuel and air, could result in a Big Bang, lit by a match called Quantum Fluctuation… particles which spontaneously come into existence and annihilate one another randomly. These particles mostly balance one another out, but sometimes they are out of balance... and POP - a universe is born.

The ramifications for this are history making; for the first time on this planet Man no longer needs the belief in a supernatural creator god as an explanation for how our universe came to be.

To help explain the science behind the concept, follower blogger and skeptical cohort, Dr. Mom (aka: The Mother’s Handbook) just recently sent me a YouTube link to an excellent explanation of this “nothingness”, the composition, origin and fate of our universe, by Dr. Lawrence Krauss. “A Universe From Nothing”. It is well worth devoting an hour to watch.
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Post Script:
As pleased as I was to hear of the release of Hawking’s new book, I also learned today that sadly, our fellow blogger whom I posted about yesterday, Penny, did not survive her injuries. My thoughts are with her family and friends today as well.

Such confluence of events reminds me that, for all the things that science can tell us about the world we inhabit; it is inadequate in helping us reconcile what it means to be Human. I closed yesterday’s post with a quote from my friend and documentary subject, Jerry Andrus. I didn’t think that merely scant hours later, two significant sources of information would make my universe simultaneously seem both so infinitely large and yet exceedingly small.


Elisabeth said...

Thanks for a terrific post, Robert. The universe is so extraordinary and yet as you suggest understanding the macro and the micro of it do little to help us deal with the events you describe towards the end of your post.

It's good and necesary though to struggle to grasp these ideas beyond the simplistic and superstitious notions that many of us grew up with.

Thank goodness for folk like Stephen Hawking.

Kay Dennison said...

Fascinating, Robert!!!

Stephen Hawking is truly one of the most interesting and gifted scientists in the country. I've actually read articles by him that I could understand and might try to read his book but Physics confuses me.

I was in Honors Physics in high school and I'm still want to know: a) why I was selected for the class; b) how I passed it with a B+; c) understand it. Incidentally, one of my classmates is an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley and doing some pretty amazing stuff last time I checked. And no, I didn't sit near Marc and wasn't his lab partner. LOL

And no, I'm not giving up religion but I'm always open to and respect others' views.

DJan said...

I never read any of Penny's posts, but today I read a poem by her that was posted by another blogger I follow. And you have brought her up twice. I think it's a sad, sad day for many to learn that she is gone. I wish I had a chance to know her.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Elisabeth I know that many hold on to beliefs very strongly. Many beliefs I have come to be able to refute and dismiss abjectly. What continues to fascinate me, though, are the reasons behind people's beliefs, what motivates them, what compels them to hold a set of thoughts so tightly. Accepting facts is difficult work, it is not a natural process and one we need to work at. As I have often heard it said, though, believing is easy, but knowing takes conscious effort.

Kay Hawkings is one of the few in his field who can translate these very complex calculations into visualizations which we lay people can understand. That is an important quality.

And yes, many find a strong sense of community in religion; it can feel kind of lonely out there as a non-believer.

DJan Penny had many followers and she posted poetry along with her photos on a regular basis. Sometimes I did not comment because my commenting would not have added anything to the thoughts she shared... it was just to read and enjoy. I will miss her blog.

I'm Jane said...

Whatever will happen to modern politics as we know it?!

(oh, right....nothing.)

Gorilla Bananas said...

Has he an answer for why the universe we have is this one rather than another one with different physical constants? Change the physical constants and you don't get a complex, interesting universe with galaxies, stars and planets.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jane In another universe there is probably a planet ruled completely by Republicans. It will be easy to pick out through telescopes... it's flat.

Bananas That very well may be true, thought a January 2010 "Scientific American" article suggests that whole different forms of physics, elements and objects could be created. Possibly even planets ruled over by an advanced civilization of highly evolved Gorillas... with wings!!

The Mother said...

I agree entirely.

The only reason I clung to any belief for so long was the idea that somehow, we all ended up here. I could explain everything past the big bang. But how did that happen?

Dawkins' argument of the "Ultimate 747" put that into a clearer focus: if you postulate a god to explain how we got here, then at some point you absolutely MUST postulate how that god got here.

That was when I swung over to the Big Red A. But I still didn't get how we got here. Krauss' talk is absolutely worth an hour of anyone's time; I've actually seen it several times, as I foisted it upon each child and a hubby in turn. Never was I one to come upon fabulous information and keep it to myself--even if it requires restraints and an NG tube.

secret agent woman said...

I ultimately decided that although I don't personally believe in any form of God, I have no need to attach myself to the label of atheist either. My position is that just because we don't yet have the full scientific explanations doesn't men that everything can't be explained by science.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom Two-thousand years ago nobody knew why the tides came in, why the sky was blue or why the seasons changed. It was all attributed to god. Two-thousand years from now, the origins of our universe will be well understood and long since accepted as well. (If we don't all kill each other first)

SecretAgent It's kind of hard to avoid the "A" word, if you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, there isn't much of an alternative. But I sympathize, I avoided accepting the term myself until recently. But take heart, you are in good company.

Orhan Kahn said...

I used to believe everything in the universe was just sitting in the stomach of something that was growing, hence the expansion and the seemingly dark nothingness. Now, I just concern myself with the things I have control of. Thats what scares me most about people who submit to a religion or a stagnant culture, they have very limit control regarding growth.

As for Penny, well, I'm always terrible when people die or are in pain, I always seem to say the wrong thing but at least shes not suffering.

Culture Served Raw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Culture Served Raw said...

Hey Robert, loved this post. Lately I try not to bash my head against these theories. The dr told me'healthy' contemplation is key!

TechnoBabe said...

You are right to applaud the technology and information available to us today. I am sorry for the people who choose to ignore the scientific facts that are available for all of us.
I am so sorry to learn of Penny's death. You are a kind blogger friend to grieve and pay tribute to her.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan I know of people in the skeptic community who prefer to contemplate the things they have control over. It's a completely valid strategy, and practical as well.

RawCulture These are complex theories and I confess, difficult for me to completely grasp as well at times.

TechnoBabe I guess we ignore it at our own peril.

Rain said...

I don't give up trying to understand but most settle for it's a mystery. The more we learn of science, the more fascinating it all becomes but in the end, how this all came into being, we may never have an answer that is absolute. We have to settle for being in awe of it. The fact that the earth could have come from nothing doesn't answer it nor does believing a god did it because then the god had to come from nothing. I am satisfied with mystery but do read and watch whatever might expand my understanding-- if I can understand it anyway...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain It is well to remember that science is not so much about answers than about understanding; science is a process. And the honest scientist will admit that there are many more things we don't know, and may never know... the point is to keep asking. Thanks for reading.

Rachel Noy said...

I really want to read a Stephen Hawking book and this just made me want to do it more but I'm terrified that I will just see a page of jargon. Are his books accessible to someone who doesn't know anything about physics but who has half a brain?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rachel Quite the case, Hawking wants everyone to understand the concepts, his previous book "A Brief History of Time" is highly readable by the non-scientist. This latest book will likely prove to be more so.

Marylinn Kelly said...

The "mystery" aspect is what appeals to me. Discoveries do not squelch it but broaden it, for they bring new questions. In simple words, I am awed by the fact that men can stand on Earth and know what lies in infinity. We humans do have moments of greatness.

And your kind, gentle writing of Penny is a fitting introduction to those who didn't discover her.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn Indeed I agree, the mysteries, discoveries, the quest to understand gives life motivation, meaning and purpose. It is yet another reason why I see no benefit to their being a Heaven; everything is known, everything is perfect... what is the point, then?

secret agent woman said...

I avoid the A word but identifying as a nontheist. For me it's about the concept of a god being irrelevant.

(Ooh! My word verification is darma! How lovely for this Buddhist, even without the h.)

Jessie said...

Thanks for this post! I'm not at ALL well-versed in matters of science, nor of God, but I eat this stuff up - particularly when it's put in terms I can understand. :) Your blog is wonderful - I hope you don't mind that I'm following you!


Robert the Skeptic said...

Jessie It is wonderful that your mind is open and yearning for inquiry. That is what it is there for. Welcome.