Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lawrence Krauss' "A Universe From Nothing": Book Review

I waited eight months for this from the library: was it worth it? Krauss handles the physics for poets approach with expected results--I assume if Ian McEwan provides the top-of-title cover blurb and Richard Dawkins the pithy and profound afterward, that Krauss aims at a general audience. It's how we came to know about the Big Bang, to "weigh the mass of the visible universe" against what we know now as nearly 30% dark matter and 70% dark energy, and how cosmic background radiation proves the expansion of our universe, along what appear to be "flat" directions for light, rather than a closed or curved model. 

Featuring early on Fr. Georges Lemaitre--whose theories helped establish the Big Bang, along with Einstein, Paul Dirac, and the familiar Copenhagen crowd who discovered quantum physics provides a broader survey than some other books. Krauss takes on the anthropic principle that we are in the universe we were meant to appreciate, and he accepts the limits of what we can know even as he insists that there's no way other than the Big Bang, the flat universe (at least for now), and verifiable particle physics to document the truth. 

Despite his subtitle "Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing," rather than ask "why" as that implies a purpose, we need to accept "how" we and all came into being. Nothingness itself, as Aristotle and Aquinas could not realize, contains potential for power, for energy, for creation. As with snowflakes and rainbows, so with all of energy and matter, seen or unseen, it's not a miracle. Like it or not, this is the universe we're faced with. 

He presents more thoroughly why the hot and cold spots found in background radiation helped measure the age of the universe to 13.72 billion years, and why the lumps resulted in "quantum nothingness" (98) full of "virtual particles" (69) that thanks to inflation inherent in quantum physics--this verifiable to one part in a billion!--created all we see and are. No First Cause needed. Out of random fluctuations, we inhabit the visible universe. 

This universe, ironically, now exists in a perfect phase for analysis. It's expanded enough to measure, but not enough to lose sight of the other galaxies. Eventually, this will change, and they all will recede, leaving far-future astrophysicists unable to outrun light, and to conjecture that they live--as was thought a century ago by earthlings--in a stable galaxy that spontaneously appeared, surrounded by blackness. In the last forty pages, Krauss' emotion infuses the science movingly. 

He concludes with a nod to the decay into negative energy of this universe. It will collapse into itself again, he conjectures, inward to a point returning to the "quantum haze" (180) which birthed us. Understandably, Dawkins reiterates in a short afterword the "devastating" end to our existential tale.

But, Krauss as a popularizer now and then fumbles. A cameo by Steven Pinker with an analogy to a God bound or not by condoning rape and murder appears off-topic, and even there, why not cite Scripture when Yahweh called for such violence against His enemies? This would have tied together the idea Krauss considers of whether or not the laws of nature are bound by themselves. 

The concept Adam Riess found of a "cosmic jerk" that accounts for about five billion years ago the shift from matter accelerating to empty space for energy density to accelerate and not decelerate needed elaboration. Krauss slips off into Feynman sums without sufficient guidance for a lay reader, whereas Hawking + Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" explained this better. Similarly, Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" delved far more deeply into string theory, understandably. (For a philosophical twist, see Jim Holt's new "Why Does the World Exist?" These titles reviewed by me July 2012.) Even if Krauss suspects some of M-theory, not even labeling it here appears odd indeed. 

I expected more than an aside to branes, but Brian Clegg's "Before the Big Bang" is excellent on this, and the Big Splat: a conjecture Krauss never mentions. He does discuss multiverses but lacks enthusiasm for this model; I get the impression he finds it a cop-out, lacking (inevitably, perhaps?) the proof of his Big Bang and open universe design. John Gribben's elegant study "In Search of the Multiverse" is recommended for those needing to know more.

The book's compact, far more than, say, Greene, and this may or may not prove as a recommendation depending on how much you want to learn. As a layman, I liked best its attention--and the addition of true feeling--to the end of the universe. Although I would have appreciated a reading list, and some charts or illustrations unevenly elucidated his sometimes recondite arguments, I did learn more about cosmic expansion and our universal fate. For, Krauss ends this short book sadly. If string theory holds, our universe being unstable by nature, it will fade away and blink out as suddenly as it sparked.

(Amazon US 8-19-12; P.S. I think this is the most complete of the versions of a 2009 video that convinced Krauss to put its gist into the first 2/3 of his book, before he peers into the future of the universe for his final stretch.)

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