Sam Holstein

“A Universe From Nothing” Will Transform How You Understand the Cosmos

“A Universe From Nothing” Will Transform How You Understand the Cosmos

People who have never read books about the hard sciences sometimes avoid the topic because they fear books on these subjects will be too complicated to understand. Sometimes they are, but not always. Some gems stand out because their author not only has a sophisticated grasp of scientific topics but also because their authors labor long and hard to make this understanding accessible for anyone willing to put in the work.

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss is one of these books. Despite having never taken a math course more advanced than calculus, Krauss was able to make real the mathematics of the universe that was easy to understand.

A Brief Overview

A Universe From Nothing is an education in how the universe came from nothing. It is the answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s a philosophical question that has vexed great thinkers for centuries — but as we now know, scientists have the answer. And the answer is an incredible set of natural laws more complicated and unexpected than anyone had ever anticipated.

The majority of the book is a good ole’ fashioned science education. Krauss takes the reader one by one through important cosmological scientific work of the last two hundred years, introducing readers to new concepts in a way that is easy for readers to understand. As a reader, you feel yourself learning tons of new information, yet never feeling like it’s too much. To tie it all together, Krauss illuminates for the reader the complete understanding of the cosmos that the world’s best physicists have as of 2019.

Next, Krauss takes the reader through possible variations in this picture. While string theory is out-of-scope for A Universe From Nothing, he spares a few paragraphs to explain the broad contours of string theory for the reader, and a few more paragraphs explaining all that string theory has yet to demonstrate before it can be regarded as anything more than speculation.

Last, Krauss takes on that task that anyone who writes about the origin of the universe must — he spends a few pages discussing the implications of all these scientific findings on modern religion. He doesn’t make a secret of the fact that he’s an atheist, but he is respectful of theists in his readership. Nowhere does he resort to arguing with straw men, as so many atheists writers do. He doesn’t exactly argue with the steel man, but he does at least debate with a hypothetical believer who believes an educated person might hold. More importantly, he does a great job delivering to the reader an understanding of theoretical physics that doesn’t feel slanted.

What This Book Taught Me

The universe as it was taught to me in school is not the way the universe is. The “Big Crunch” was ruled out decades before I was born. Quantum mechanics was derived in the 1920s, nearly a hundred years before the iPhone was invented. If I want to keep up with modern science, I can’t rely on what the US educational system taught me.

Theories don’t deserve additional credence for being intuitive to the human mind. Many false notions are intuitive to the human mind, such as a flat earth and empty space with a measured energy level of zero. What should determine the weight of my belief in something is the evidence in favor of it, not how easy the theory is for me to understand conceptually.

There is still a breathtaking amount to discover. Far from having it all figured out, there are loads and loads of things physicists still don’t understand. Certain theories have made more progress than others at proposing explanations, but until there’s something to test, these “theories” are mere speculation.

Who I’d Recommend This Book For

If you’re starting with a high-school or some-college level understanding of the universe and you want to learn more, I’d recommend A Universe From Nothing for you. Someone with advanced knowledge of cosmology would go mad thinking about all that’s been omitted from the book. Someone with a more rudimentary knowledge of cosmology should probably read a book aimed at older children about the solar system or watch a few documentaries.

This book will surely be interesting to people who are interested in religion, as Krauss takes time to explain to readers how a notion of “God” or the first cause may or may not play into many of the theories he’s teaching you about. But it will also be interesting to people merely interested in the science, as his commentary concerning religion does not make up the bulk of the book.

Some people may feel the commentary about religion detracts from the work as a work of science, but I disagree. One cannot write about abiogenesis or the big bang without readers immediately asking a host of religion-related questions about the topic. Authors are better off facing these questions head-on than they would be by deflecting, and it may very well lead them to write a better book.