Monday, January 16, 2012

Science Sunday: A Universe Ex Nihilo

by Zach Webb

How did the universe begin? How and when will the universe end? Why is there something rather than nothing? Questions of this sort have distressed human kind for centuries and have been at the center of both religious and philosophical debate for as long as we know. 

In an enthralling lecture at the Atheist Alliance International conference in 2009 that touches on the domains of cosmology as well as particle physics, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss attempts to answer this age old question. The “Woody Allen of physics,” as Dawkins called him at the end of the lecture, delivers a beautiful, reasoned, coherent, and often humorous account of how the universe began and attempts to answer the question often posed by religious apologetics, “why is there something as opposed to nothing?” In a very non-esoteric way, Lawrence Krauss describes how recent progress in the field of physics has shed new light on these ‘un-answerable’ philosophical questions. From Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity to the computer simulated models of quantum fluctuations of empty space, we see that the universe is not how we thought it was; it is, in fact, more absurd than we could have ever possibly imagined. 

Krauss develops these ideas in a manner that is easy for the layman to understand. He further explains how we live in a flat universe, a universe with total energy equal to zero. He states in the lecture that he “knew this had to be the right model, because it’s the only one that is mathematically beautiful,” and what he meant is that the flat universe model is the only model that has total energy zero and thus could arise solely from quantum fluctuations of empty space. Quantum fluctuations are temporary changes in the energy in a certain point in space that arise due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. For reasons that I do not have space to go into we can only know so much about the energy and time of existence of certain particles and this can lead to violations of the conservation of energy principle, but only on small time scales. Krauss takes us back to the beginning of space and time itself and presents the most recent evidence for how our universe evolved and the frightening implications for how our universe will one day end.
“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded.  And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics.  You are all stardust.  You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time.  They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.

So, forget Jesus.  The stars died so that you could be here today.”  -Lawrence Krauss

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