Non-Fiction Review: A Universe From Nothing

I've been on a bit of a philosophical journey over the past few years. Always of a scientific bent, I've wrestled with some heavy-duty ideas, the biggest of which being "why is there anything?".

I can handle the fact that life exists. I can handle the idea of this being the only life - I don't recall existence before I was born as being unpleasant, but if this is it I have to confess to being disappointed all the things I'll not get to see. What I find the most challenging is the fact the universe exists at all. And if there was no universe, what would there be? What is nothing? That makes the end of one's consciousness seem trivial.

The religious postulation of God as first mover, made most famously by Thomas Aquinas, is unsatisfying to me. Ignoring the question of the existence of a supreme being, it seems to just shift the goalposts. (And yes, I've spent time going over Aquinas' Summa Theologica.)

In A Universe From Nothing Lawrence Krauss tackles the question of the existence of the universe from a purely scientific bent. He's not massively hostile towards religion but he doesn't have much patience with scientific inquiry that is constrained by an answer "known" a priori via religious revelation. I'm not going to re-argue the science he presents, but I will give a very high level view of what he discusses.

A Universe From Nothing takes us into the world of physics, specifically cosmological physics. Krauss takes us through the various questions that have been asked about the universe and the answers that have been found. It is a book written for a reasonably intelligent layman - Krauss does not dive into the mathematical proofs but rather makes heavy use of analogy to walk laymen like me through complex concepts. In that I'd say he succeeds well - I'm not a physical scientist but did study physics as an undergraduate as part of getting an engineering degree - and of course I have the background in high school physics before that. It is a work that demands attention and consideration.

What did I learn? Here I'm going to spout out some random thoughts which might give you an idea if you'd be interested in this as well:

  • The nothing of the universe really isn't nothing. Empty space has energy. Indeed the empty space of the universe has a lot of energy. Which gives a lot of insight into the Big Bang.
  • The Big Bang is something that all experimental evidence supports.
  • There's been a ton of debate as to whether the universe is flat or curved (and if curved, how so)  - which has implications as to what the future of the universe holds.
  • Supernovae are important. We literally are star stuff as stars produce all the elements that make us up. And explosions spread them out into the universe. A particularly interesting idea was the thought that the atoms in our left hand and right hand almost certainly come from different stars.
  • Space itself expands - and can expand faster than light. This does not violate relativity as nothing is moving faster than light - more specifically, nothing is moving faster than light.
  • Cosmologically speaking, we live in an interesting time, with much of the evidence for the Big Bang and energy in nothing available to us. Go a trillion or so years in the future and this evidence will be gone.
  • Physics does allow for the creation of "something" from "nothing".

A lot of people reading my blog are gamers, and the ideas in A Universe From Nothing can certainly influence ideas in a hard science fiction RPG, attempting to hew close to reality. Heck, if you're going for a pulp feel it gives some great ideas for technobabble - "our ship can't exceed he speed of light but the space around us can!".  That said, this is not a work I'd suggest reading if you want to mine ideas for your science fiction RPG. I'd really recommend it for people who are interested in big questions like "why does anything exist?". It's an endlessly interesting read, though one that can be challenging and demanding of your full attention.

What I'm left with is a knowledge there's a ton of stuff we just don't know yet. But what we do know shows an absolutely amazing universe and there are some fascinating known unknowns.

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