Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lawrence Krauss Doesn't Understand "Nothing"

One of the Fermi towers, Monroe, MI
Wow - here's a very fun and deep essay by Columbia University theoretical physicist and philosopher of science David Albert -  "On the Origin of Everything" (a review of A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, by Lawrence M. Krauss).

Krauss claims that the laws of quantum mechanics explain why there is something (a universe) rather than nothing. Albert says, "I kid you not" (referring to Krauss's non-scientific claim). Richard Dawkins, upon hearing Krauss's boast, has come to worship this non-event like a blind person who runs after a faith healer. Dawkins writes: "“Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”"

Not really. In fact, not at all. Krauss's extravagant title denotes nothing, as do the terms "current living dinosaur" or "present King of France." Albert explains this. Read the entire thing for yourself. Here are the bullets.
  • Relativistic quantum field theories do not count "material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world"
  • For Krauss, according to the relativistic quantum field theory vacuum states consist of no physical particles at all. 
  • Such vacuum states, then, are "nothing."
  • Albert says "That's just not right." He writes:
  • "Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing."
  • Krauss says that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ”    
  • Albert writes that "Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise." (Emphasis mine.)
Albert concludes with a comment about the likes of Krauss and Dawkins. "It seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb."

Krauss and his acolyte Dawkins, it seems, really know nothing about "nothing."