Australian politics, society & culture

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The big nothing

Lawrence Krauss and arse-kicking physics

By Amanda Lohrey 
Cover: October 2012October 2012Medium length read

It’s a cold Hobart night and a snow cloud is drifting across Mount Wellington as I make my way to a lecture by the celebrated theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss is on an Australian tour to promote his latest book, A Universe From Nothing. Its afterword is by the voluble atheist Richard Dawkins, who, with his customary restraint, describes the book as the cosmological equivalent to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a deadly blow to “the last remaining trump card of the theologian”.

The lecture theatre is crammed with people in navy and black puffer jackets wearing drab beanies. Many are students and there are several older men with greying beards and cardigans (some things never change). There are hardly any women. As I enter, the sound system is playing Monty Python’s ‘The Galaxy Song’, and this is a sign that we are here to enjoy ourselves, that cosmology can be fun. But not too much fun: on the giant screen above the lecture dais some lines from Virgil are projected over an image of the stars. “These are the tears of things … and the stuff of mortality cuts us to the heart ...”

I sit down behind a young man in a brown hoodie that has an equation printed across its back like a badge of identity. He and his friends are animated and indeed the general atmosphere is one of anticipation; it is clear that we are about to listen to a hero in the current culture wars. Krauss is introduced as a “rare public intellectual” and takes the stage with the wide grin and easy manner of one who has given this talk many times before and is confident of its reception (it’s already a hit on YouTube). He is an engaging and energetic man who tends to talk in overdrive, an articulate speed skater of the lecture circuit with a repertoire of good jokes. (Dawkins once described him as “the Woody Allen of cosmology”.) After an update on the Higgs boson he gets down to tackling the ur-question of existence: why is there something and not nothing? The answer seems to be that empty space is capable of generating particles because, while empty, that space is volatile and unstable, “a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence in a timescale so short we can’t measure them”. These little ADHD zippers of the universe have massive implications; they tell us that this ‘nothing’ of empty space is inherently creative in a way that renders the need for a Creator null. “Forget Jesus – the stars died so you can be here today.” Furthermore, recent research has confirmed the mathematical models of theoretical physicists like Krauss who postulated that we are the inhabitants of a flat universe, the total energy of which is zero (see YouTube for details). This means that the universe could have come from nothing; if there was zero energy the moment before the Big Bang, then there was no need for God.

But aren’t these virtual particles ‘something’, albeit volatile? No, because the space they are in isn’t really there. Shortly after the Big Bang, matter expanded at such speed that it created – and since it is accelerating, continues to create – its own infinitely large space. Er, yes, but isn’t that still space of a kind? Well, sort of. It turns out that Krauss is not so much asserting nothingness as redefining it: “The notion of ‘nothing’ has changed because ‘nothing’ is now everything.” We now know that the universe is 30% dark matter and approximately 70% (volatile) nothing, and we are a “1% bit of pollution” within the whole. We are completely insignificant (see tears and Virgil) and why such a universe should be made for us is beyond Krauss, who has a history of publicly debating proponents of intelligent design.

There is some good news, however. The accelerating nature of the universe’s expansion means that billions of years from now intelligent life, wherever it is, will look up at the sky and see no signs of other galaxies at all, never mind of their movement, and hence no evidence of the Big Bang. With the best effort in the world(s), scientists then will come to the wrong conclusions. We at least have the best views, the best cosmological real estate, so to speak. And we are closer to truth.

Unsurprisingly, Krauss has been co-opted into the church of the New Atheism that has Dawkins as its high priest. At the funeral of his friend Christopher Hitchens, Krauss delivered a eulogy and played ‘The Galaxy Song’. In North America he has provoked outrage by dismissing philosophers as irrelevant, though he has since issued a qualified apology. We know our scientists tend to suffer from hubris, but they’re not supposed to flaunt it. They’re supposed to come up with sage and vaguely spiritual aphorisms, like Einstein. But Krauss is not interested in being fatherly: he’s a kick-arse kind of physicist. He’s had enough of Bush Republicans and nutty theologians, and when he tells us that the particle-smashing at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva generates more data in each second than all the libraries in the world combined, he is staking out an imperium of knowledge in which the theoretical physicist is Caesar. At the same time he is apt to make pleas for “cosmological humility”, the recognition that we don’t understand everything and maybe never will, seemingly unaware that while the God of the fundamentalists is his natural antagonist, the God of the mystics – the Cloud of Unknowing, the mystical Void – could sit comfortably within and without his theory. One would expect any God worth having to be well ahead of theoretical physicists.

After the lecture I wait for a taxi, shivering at the edge of the car park and eavesdropping on two young men, obviously students, discussing Descartes. How do we know, when we make what seems a rational assertion, that we are sane? How do we know we are not in a dream? How can Lawrence Krauss be certain he is not dreaming his theory of particle physics? They continue in this vein with impressive lucidity until at last the taxi pulls up and I hop into the front seat. The driver is a middle-aged Indian three months out of Delhi and unsure of my route home. He asks me where I’ve spent my evening. I tell him about Krauss and he nods. Of course there is no space and no time, he says, and proceeds to explain that the universe is a veil of illusion, a dream in the mind of God. It’s a cold Hobart night, the snow cloud has blanketed Mount Wellington, and whichever route we take towards whatever home we seek we are captive to metaphysics.

About the author Amanda Lohrey
Amanda Lohrey is a lecturer in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. Her books include Reading Madame Bovary, The Philosopher's Doll, The Reading Group and Camille's Bread.