Did the Universe Come From Nothing?

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 13

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

Today, we are talking about nothing! Absolutely nothing. Did the Universe Really Come From Nothing? A few episodes ago, we asked the question, “What Happened before the Big Bang?” If you haven’t yet listened to that podcast, be sure to do so! I stuck mostly with Stephen Hawking’s take on space-time and focused on the emergence of time itself. But the time has come to go deeper. We are getting our hands messy today with quantum physics. We are going to see if we can figure out why some scientists say that everything did indeed, come from nothing.

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When I run into religious arguments against mainstream science, I often hear a line that goes something like this: “And what about the Big Bang? Now scientists would have us believe that something came from nothing. How absurd! Something is something and nothing is nothing and to think otherwise is nonsense! Besides, we never ever see something come out of nothing do we?”

Do we? Here is this common misconception in a nutshell: “The universe couldn’t have possibly popped into existence out of nothing.”

Quantum Physics is, in a way, the new kid on the block. While the fundamentals of the Big Bang theory represent well established and well tested science, Quantum Physics is lagging behind. Like all new sciences, it isn’t as widely accepted or well understood. Does that mean that it is necessarily “less true” than more established science? Not at all. It is actually one of the most robust and productive tools we have in the field of physics.

Most of the time, when we talk about the big bang, we are talking about a microscopic singularity that expanded into the universe we live in today. Yet scientists are not content with resting on what is well tested or understood. They are perplexed by the unknown, the promise of the prize of new knowledge just beyond our horizon.

Therefore, in recent years, scientists such as Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, and Brian Greene have seen what quantum mechanics can tell us about the origins of the universe. The math behind quantum physics has been astonishingly accurate so far, and has made things like our cell phones and your internet access possible today. So when we turn this powerful mathematical model to the biggest questions of the universe, what is revealed? What have these scientists and cosmologists like them discovered? Through mathematics and indirect observation of quantum fluctuations, scientists can now make the case that our universe did indeed come into existence out of what people call, “nothing.”

Now most people’s problem with this astonishing discovery comes from the use of this word, “nothing.” In everyday language, when we say nothing, we mean the opposite of something. We mean absolute emptiness, an unambiguous void. This pure, theoretical, and definition-based abstract doesn’t really exist. This idea isn’t exactly what cosmologists and quantum physicists mean. The “nothing” they are talking about is what is left over when we take outer space, and remove all of its ingredients, or at least all of the ingredients with which we are most familiar. If we take away stars, galaxies, dust clouds, planets, rocks, ice, molecules, atoms, all baryonic matter, dark matter, and energy... What is left over?

The quote-unquote “Nothing” that is left over, is actually a rolling boil of quantum fluctuations, sub atomic energy that flows in and out of existence according to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. How cool is that? When everything is stripped away, we have this bizarre energy that can’t make up its mind. It phases in and out of our universe, like swarms of bees flying in and out of a busy hive. An impressive fact about quantum fluctuations, is that they represent a massive amount of energy on larger scales. The truth is, some 70% of the energy in the universe comes from this humble rumbling below space itself. This wiggling soup of ingredients that bounce between “is” and “isn’t” really exists, and is that “something” that quantum physicists mean when they say “nothing.”

I hope that helps, but I should add that even with everything I just said, mathematically, the quantum fluctuations can still be completely accurately described as “nothing.”

But if everything came from nothing, how can this agree with what we understand about the conservation of matter or the conservation of energy? Haven’t we heard that matter and energy can’t be created or destroyed, but they can only be changed into other forms?

If that is what you were thinking, then you are on the right track. The next thing to remember is that energy and matter are basically the same thing. Do you remember Einstein’s most famous equation: E=MC2 and what it represents? Basically, matter can turn into energy (think of an atomic bomb) and energy can turn into matter. We are talking about two sides of the same coin.

We live in what cosmologists call a “flat universe.” Put another way, if we mathematically account for all of the matter, all of the dark matter, and all of the gravity, all virtual particles, and all of the positive and negative energy of the universe and add it together, how much energy would that total? Well, this isn’t just a hypothetical question. Scientists have actually done the calculation. So how much energy does it total?

The answer is zero: Zero joules, zero electronvolts, zero calories. The laws of conservation are completely satisfied. Here is an oversimplified equation that I think would help. 0 = -1000 + 1000. This statement is still true when we read it backwards: 1000 - 1000 = 0. Now imagine that the equals sign is the big bang. Before the universe expanded, we had zero. Now that we have a full and complex universe, all of its laws, matter, and energy can be represented by positive 1000 and negative 1000. If we add all the positive and negative matter and energy together, we are back to zero.

This is an over-simplified explanation of how nothing can create something, and something can equal nothing. I hope it helps, and I hope that the next time you hear someone say, “The universe couldn’t have popped into existence out of nothing” you will now be able to say something, rather than nothing.

But before I wrap up this episode, there is one more point I’d like to make in this whole discussion about nothing. This is me just thinking out loud, but I can’t help it. New and challenging ideas, at the edge of my understanding, only make sense to me if I can think out loud.

Do you remember Edwin Hubble’s observations? He was the first to discover that the fabric of space itself is stretching between the galaxies. Our universe is expanding. In fact, it is even accelerating in its expansion. This is often attributed to enigmatic dark energy, a phenomenon that scientists are still trying to tackle and define. I have been perplexed by the idea of dark energy since my childhood. I even wrote a report on it as a sixth grader. There must be massive amounts of it to push against all gravity and the forces of nature and push the universe to expand even faster than it already is! Where has all that energy been all this time? Where is it coming from?

Many scientists believe that the evidence points to quantum fluctuations giving rise to the singularity that expanded into our universe. In the absolute emptiness of non-existence, quantum fluctuations produced all existence. And it started out small, a little bit of space-time that eventually expanded into a massive cosmos.

But it didn’t end there, did it? The universe is still expanding and even accelerating in its expansion based upon what we can measure. The Big Bang isn’t something that happened, it is something that is still happening, and we are seeing it happen from the inside!

If the seemingly empty space between these galaxies is filled with humming and jostling quantum fluctuations, the same kind of fluctuations that created the fabric of space-time in the first place, could it be that they are still busy at work, creating even more space-time?

What if the same quantum mechanisms that started our cosmos are responsible for making more cosmos between the galaxies, causing the universe to expand? Could the mystery of dark energy one day be solved completely through quantum mechanics? Could this explain where the universe is getting all of this extra energy?

Well, I don’t know. Like I said, we have reached the edge of my understanding of this topic. Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when we all can better understand this bizarre universe of quantum mechanics, dark energy, and the unintuitive potential of “nothing.”

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That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative