Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review - A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

I have just finished reading the book A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, in which he explains through the intersection of cosmology and particle physics how the universe could have come into existence without the need for divine intervention.  It is a brilliant book, a view that is shared in all the reviews I read on Amazon with the exception of those written by disgruntled adherents to the ancient mythologies that comprise the world's religions.  The motivation of the latter reviewers is perhaps understandable, given that Krauss does not shrink from challenging the need for the ancient mythologies when one is presented with such compelling scientific evidence to explain the origin of the universe we live in.  Krauss nailed his colours to the mast when he invited Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, to write the afterword.  Dawkins explains that those of religious faith are finding there are fewer and fewer epistemological places to hide when the light of scientific knowledge exposes the redundancy of their beliefs.

Religious dogma has always been exorcised by knowledge and logic.  The only difference today compared to, say, the Catholic Church's eventual accommodation of Copernicus's heliocentric view of the planets, is that religion is finding its ground getting smaller and smaller.  If religion is the preserve of that which cannot be explained by science, it is fair to say that the physical preserve of faith is approaching in size the Planck Length (a distance of approx 1.6 × 10∧-35 metres - the smallest conceivable measurable distance in physics).

I have heard Krauss debating cosmology with the religious faithful.  The latter usually resort to the argument that only God could truly create something from nothing.  In response to Krauss's argument that quantum physics allows precisely that, they simply retreat an order of abstraction by asking, who created the conditions or rules that allows quantum physics to do that?  Dawkins is perhaps better at Krauss at dealing with these specious arguments and his response is: if God created the conditions for quantum physics to create the universe, then who created God?  But God has existed forever, the theologians reply.

I have my own response to this theological question of First Cause, as it is known.  If God has existed forever, and if he is omniscient and omnipotent (not to mention omnipresent), why did he need to create the universe at all?  For his own amusement?  That hardly seems consistent with an omniscient and omnipotent being.  After all, if he is omniscient, he has perfect knowledge of everything that will ever exist and watching the universe unfold would contain all the amusement of watching an infinite number of reruns of a television soap opera.  And what was God doing before he created the universe?  If, as theologians assert, God has existed forever, he must have existed for an infinite amount of time before he created the universe.  Whether the universe was created 13.72 billion years ago (as Krauss and others have proven) or 6,000 years ago (as Creationists believe), it was an infinitely short time ago compared to the time God has supposedly existed.  So it appears he was sitting around for eternity doing absolutely nothing and suddenly decided to create the universe.  Was he bored?

Such theological arguments depart from the main argument of Krauss's book - that science can explain how the universe came into existence.  He does this more effectively that any other popular physics writer I have read (and I've read many) and does it in a way that makes you proud to be part of a race that can finally answer many of the big questions about its own existence.

There is one aspect to Krauss's conclusions that left me feeling dissatisfied, however.  In the final chapters, Krauss postulates a future where physicists will be unable to arrive at the same conclusions - about the Big Bang, Inflation and the existence of Dark Energy - as he does.  This is because the universe will have expanded to the point where only our local group of galaxies will be visible and even the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (which is part of the evidence of the Big Bang) will not be visible.  Future scientists will be literally in the dark regarding the origins of the universe.  Ultimately, the universe will die a cold death or collapse back into a singularity.  Krauss misses one important point, in my view - future scientists will know the history of the universe because they will be able to read about it in a book (of some form or other).  This is because human intelligence has reached a point where its survival is almost guaranteed, irrespective of what happens to human biology, the Earth or our galaxy.  Our descendants, who will certainly have transcended our biology to become something approaching pure knowledge or energy (and they are pretty much the same thing in physics), will endure for billions or even trillions of years.  They may even be able to save our universe from its eventual destruction or make the jump to another universe in the multiverse.  I am more optimistic than Krauss.