When we march backwards along the arrow of time, we reach the point from which everything began, the point that modern science calls the “Big Bang.” Scientists have a wonderful grasp on what happened a billionth of a billionth of a second after the big bang; this, of course, only begs the question “What came before the Big Bang?” Physicist Lawrence Krauss demonstrates in the video below that the answer is “Nothing” and that under our current understanding of physics, and contrary to traditional logic, it is not just probable that we get “something” out of “nothing” — it is absolutely inevitable.
Philosophers often throw around the Latin phrase ex nihilo, meaning “out of nothing,” to argue from a logical standpoint that nothing can only give rise to more nothingness. You need something in order to get more of that something.
Yet against all our philosophical convictions, the intellectual brushstrokes of modern physics are painting a very different picture of how the universe works. All sorts of dizzying experiments have demonstrated that the concept of “nothing” perhaps is just our inability to actually see what’s really going on in a supposedly empty chunk of space. Indeed, it’s become clear that empty space actually has all sorts of physical properties, such as weight. The beauty of this claim is that it is a falsifiable hypothesis, subject to experimental scrutiny. Not only has this weight been repeatedly measured, it has more weight than you might expect “nothing” to have. See 20:00-22:00.
Take atoms, for example. The combined weight of all of an atom’s subatomic particles only make up a fraction of the overall atom’s weight. However, this weight is far less than would be predicted if we were to sum the individual weights of each, say, proton particle — so what gives? Let’s zoom in on protons. Protons are located at the center of an atom and are a part of what give an atom its mass. Within protons are subatomic particles known as quarks. Within quarks is empty space. Yet, this empty space produces 90% of the mass of a proton. Where’s the weight coming from, since all that’s in between subatomic particles is emptiness?
(By the way, this also makes the following deduction demonstrably and necessarily true: you consist of atoms; atoms are mostly empty space; you, in fact, are mostly empty space. Physics humbles us all.)
And so this problem puzzled physicists for a good chunk of the 20th century. As is usually the case in the history of science, it took some clever minds to prove beyond a doubt that our common sense and intuitions about the universe simply were incomplete. Empty space has energy. A few Nobel Prizes later, an explanation arose: it turned out that the laws of gravity — and how they relate to energy and short-lived particles — make a universe out of nothing possible.
That empty space in between quarks actually consists of “virtual” particles (which are just as real as any other particle, they are just short-lived — physicists stay in style with names like these) spontaneously popping in and out of existence from nothing, and their brief lifetime produces a direct effect on a proton’s mass. This is important, because science can measure these real effects, and to 10 decimal places no less. This is also what prompted Stephen Hawking to write his newest book and to proclaim that a Designer is evidently superflous. If particles pop in and out of existence from nothing — and they do! — then the nothingness that came before the Big Bang indeed was all that was needed to hiccup a universe into existence.
And so, dear reader, watch as Krauss eloquently and wittily explains the details of our beginnings and how it will all end. This is modern science, made user-friendly, at its best. If science has ever come close to reaching poetic, almost sublime heights, I know of no other example better than what you hear between 16:00-17:30.
He ends by reminding us that the universe began as a bang and will, in fact, end as a whimper.