Making Something out of Nothing

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I’m continuing to follow the ongoing and now very heated debate about religion and atheism, and was shocked to hear that in a debate last week Richard Dawkins defended his views against those of Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by maintaining that what all religious people have the most trouble accepting is the idea that the universe – and therefore all of life – came from nothing.

 

This argument is simply scientific illiteracy. As any high school student of physics is taught, nothing comes from nothing.

 

Ever-present energy

There are several reasons for this. The first, accepted as a basic tenet of physics, has to do with the laws of conservation of mass and energy: that the universe is made of energy and that energy can get neither created or destroyed: it simply changes form.

 

The only universe that could come out of nothing is a universe without any energy at all.

 

The second point is that there is no nothing. Quantum mechanics has long demonstrated that there is no such thing as a vacuum, or nothing. What we tend to think of as a sheer void if all of space were tipped out and emptied of matter and energy, and you examined even the space between the stars is, in subatomic terms, a hive of activity.

 

Fleeting presence

What we believe to be our stable, static universe is in fact a seething maelstrom of subatomic particles fleetingly popping in and out of existence. The uncertainty principle developed by Werner Heisenberg, one of the chief architects of quantum theory, implies that no particle ever stays completely at rest but is constantly in motion due to a ground state field of energy constantly interacting with all subatomic matter.

 

It means that the basic substructure of the universe is a sea of quantum fields that cannot be eliminated by any known laws of physics.

 

Again, we know because of Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 that all elementary particles interact with each other by exchanging energy through other quantum particles, which are believed to appear out of nowhere, combining and annihilating each other in less than an instant, causing random fluctuations of energy without any apparent cause.

 

The fleeting particles generated during this brief moment, known as ‘virtual particles,’ differ from real particles because they only exist during that exchange – the time of ‘uncertainty.’

 

Even in temperatures of absolute zero, the lowest possible energy state, where all matter has been removed and nothing is supposed left to make motion.

 

This ‘Zero Point’ energy is the energy present in the emptiest state of space at the lowest possible energy, out of which no more energy could be removed – the closest that motion of subatomic matter ever gets to zero.

 

Because of the uncertainty principle, there will always be some residual jiggling due to this virtual particle exchange.

 

Subtracting God

This movement has always been largely discounted because it is ever present. In physics equations, most physicists subtract troublesome Zero-Point energy away – a process called ‘renormalization’ – because it messes up their equations. Once you get rid of the mathematical representation of this residual jigging, you tidy up your equation.

 

As I have always maintained, subtracting out the Zero Point Field is a little like subtracting out God. It isn’t the annoying leftover, like some endless remainder in long division – it’s the entire point of the story.

 

Ironically, the only universe that came completely out of nothing would have to be completely flat. And indeed there is a hypothesis about a zero-energy universe.

 

I chuckle at this and am reminded of British Dr. Stephen Davies, one of the early nutritional medical pioneer, who in the 1980s proposed that bodies were biochemically individual and that individual deficiencies in certain nutrients led to illness.

 

Naturally, he was attacked as a heretic. He liked to refer to his more orthodox opponents, in their stubborn belief that nutritional status had nothing to do with illness, as ‘flat earthers.’ They, too, believed that something came out of nothing.

 

The ancient Greek cosmologists and philosophers understood that nothing comes from nothing – as did Rodgers and Hammerstein. As Captain Von Trapp reminds Maria in The Sound of Music, ‘Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.’

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