universe.JPGI recently finished A Universe From Nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing, which I have to say, was a little disappointing. Even though the physics were clearly explained and even somewhat exciting, the overall tone of the book is a bit pedantic.

I’ve contemplated this very question quite a bit and wrote about here on The Nerge, mostly it in this post The Origin of Everything. I was very excited when I saw this book and immediately reserved it at the fabulous Oakland Library (because, as you may know, I never buy a book unless the library doesn’t have it, or I absolutely adore it.) When I got it just a few weeks later and began to read it, I was amused that Krauss, the author, began the book by immediately discounting any notions of god creating the universe. Which is fine, except that he seems quite stuck on this idea, and returns to it repeatedly throughout the book, which is very unnecessary, as he makes his point quite clear from the get-go. Now, I understand it may be really boring and annoying to constantly explain to people that you don’t need god to have a universe. Conversely, I feel that life is difficult and incomprehensible to most folks, and if believing in god makes it feel more sensible or even benevolent to someone, I’m fine with that as long it harms no one. Additionally, even though I myself am an atheist, I found it almost as annoying to have Krauss repeatedly talk about god not existing as I find it annoying that people assume I celebrate Christmas. Okay, the Christmas thing is way more annoying. Skip that.

So, I hate to be redundant, but I keep going back to Alexander Vilenkin’s book Many Worlds in One as the pinnacle of fun cosmology/quantum physics reading. Vilenkin has a sense of humor and also draws humorous illustrative cartoons sprinkled throughout his book. (Krauss refers to Vilenkin in A Universe From Nothing, and points out that Vilenkin worked crappy day jobs while pursuing his PhD. Maybe this gives him a sense of humility that ivory-tower academics lack.) That aside, other books of this genre seem hella dry in comparison to Many Worlds in One, as this book did.

Next, the whole point of the book is to show that elementary particles appear from nothing on a regular basis, therefore a universe could have easily come from nothing. Although this is startling and fascinating information, it wasn’t completely convincing. I was convinced that particles *appear* to come from nothing (appear to appear?), but I wasn’t convinced that we know enough (or could ever know enough) about how the entire universe works to show that they come from nothing rather than, say, another imperceptible dimension, parallel universe, or time warp. Krauss writes about how previous supposed breakthroughs in quantum physics in the last couple of decades have since been disproven, discounted, or fallen into disfavor (26 dimensions, anyone?) but doesn’t seem to consider that his own breakthroughs may also end up on the theoretical trash heap in the not-too-distant future (theories of non-existent time aside). (Okay, I’m done with my overuse of parenthesis).

Then, towards the end of the book, I feel Krauss really blows it. He posits that when people ask “Why?” they really mean “How?” so when people ask the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, what they really mean is “How is there something rather than nothing?” For such an intelligent man, I can’t believe he could believe something so lame. The question “Why do I exist?” is NOT the same as “How do I exist?”. The latter can be explained through sex education, but the former requires contemplation and perhaps philosophy. So much moreso does “Why is there something rather than nothing?” begs thoughtfulness beyond physics. It’s a copout to even put forth the idea that How means Why, especially when Why is the subtitle of the book, and worse when it come at the end of the book.

The book does have some nice, clear, fun science in it, but it really falls short of its ambitious title. I’m sure titles like that are dreamed up by publishers to sell books and commercialize what is a rather poor commodity in our anti-intellectual country, so I can’t fault them for it too much. But I get the feeling that Krauss wants to be the next big pop-culture science-guy icon, and I feel that he has a way to go to fill Carl Sagan’s shoes.

Okay, you knew this was coming when I wrote “time warp”… admit it…


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