Something and Nothing

  • In the something of interest category, last week at Columbia there was a panel discussion held as part of the World Leader’s Forum, introduced by our president Lee Bollinger, on the topic What If We Find the Higgs Particle and What if We Don’t.

    Columbia’s Michael Tuts and Brian Greene gave an excellent discussion of the topic, to a large and attentive audience. Probably nothing new to readers of this blog, but I think they did a great job of it, and was interested to notice that Brian expressed skepticism about Kane’s claims to derive the Higgs mass from string theory. Dennis Overbye of the New York Times seemed rather wary of hype about HEP, since he’s a veteran of seeing the Times burned by this sort of thing. It’s now been quite a while since they’ve made the mistake of putting up LHC headlines like Physicists Finally Find a Way to Test Superstring Theory.

    Maybe there’s a better source for the video linked above, in the version I’m looking at, everyone is blue…

    In other “something” news, Brian’s World Science Festival has just announced its schedule, available here.

  • On the Krauss/Albert debate over nothingness front, yesterday there was a piece on the Huffington Post by Victor Stenger taking up the fight on Krauss’s side. Over at Scientific American today, John Horgan comes into the ring on Albert’s side.

    Like Horgan, I’ve recently got ahold of a copy of a pre-publication copy of a much more interesting take on the something/nothing business, Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?. I look forward to writing something about it here soon.

Update: Thanks to commenter Zathras for pointing to the latest punches returned by Krauss (see here):

Well, I read a moronic philosopher who did a review of my book in the New York Times who somehow said that having particles and no particles is the same thing, and it’s not.

Update: When checking out John Horgan’s SciAm piece on this, don’t miss the comment section, where he and Krauss are going at it.

Update: Via commenter Billy Hudson, Krauss’s fighting words about philosophers and philosophy seem to have brought the philosophy community into the fight on Albert’s side, see Massimo Pigliucci’s latest.

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34 Responses to Something and Nothing

  1. Zathras says:

    The Atlantic also has an extended interview with Krauss, touching upon the multiverse quite a bit:

  2. Marcus says:

    You may have meant “it’s now been quite a while since”
    and mistyped “it’s not been quite a while…”

    It’s been a while since I thanked you. You do a great job in something that really matters. Thanks.

  3. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for pointing that out. Krauss responds to “pale, small, silly, nerdy”, with “moronic”. I added the link as an update to the main text.


    Thanks! Fixed.

  4. jg says:

    the ‘blue people’ problem I think is a recent flash bug.

    if you have html5 enabled browser there are no visual problems.

    try opting in to the html5 trial at youtube and restarting your browser.

    (you have to select a link at the bottom of the page to opt in to the trial)

  5. CarlN says:

    Yes, this nothing business is a lot ado about it should 🙂

    Regarding where reality ultimately comes from, we cannot base any explanation on anything that needs further explanation of course. In particular we cannot base any explanation on any eternal “things” as there would be questions on why this eternal thing (a law of physics or a god) have a particular form or particular properties (that would explain everything else) instead of other conceivable properties. Thus no real explanation can be obtained. Of course the concept of eternal things has other logical problems as well.

    We need to start with absolute Nothing (no spacetime, no laws, no gods etc) as this point of departure does not need any explanation at all.

    Fortunately this is simple 🙂

    There are no laws “when” there is Nothing, hence there is no law of causation (“things” may happen without causation, Big Bang anyone?) , no laws of conservation (of energy,charge etc).

    In short, “when” there is Nothing there exist no “things” (since a true Nothing contains no “things” like laws) that can prevent the creation of (self-consistent) “things” from Nothing.

    So logically the “road” is totally open for creation from absolute Nothing. But only for things that are self-consistent of course.


  6. I’m very much, and very impatiently, looking forward to Jim Holt’s book in the summer. Hope you say more about it soon!

  7. Sebastian Thaler says:

    The John Templeton Foundation is a “Founding Benefactor” of the World Science Festival? *choke*

  8. billy hudson says:

    Massimo Pigliucci has a post about the Kraus/Albert dust-up:

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks billy,

    I’ll add a link to the main posting. Looks like Krauss picked a fight with the entire philosophy community…

  10. JC says:

    This book is really nothing new. It is just a re-package of all these unsubstantiated craps (landscape, multiverse, … etc) under the new hype of “something from nothing”.

    This generation of “particle” physicists is really pathetic. They might be good as second-class mathematicians (since really good ones could just work on hard-core mathematical problems). They achieve nothing comparable to the those of the great minds in the past. At the same time, they are trying very hard to make themselves look good and smart.

  11. abbyyorker says:

    I’m with the philosophers on this one, if only because I don’t like mediocrities running around calling people they disagree with morons. And the pointless “muscular atheism” of Dawkins et al disgusts me (though I am atheist myself). But I sure like Dawkins books!

  12. David Kordahl says:

    Has anyone else here actually read the works of David Z Albert? I read his books while a physics undergraduate, and I found them to be very worthwhile, especially “Quantum Mechanics and Experience,” which is a simple but cogent introduction to the measurement problem. Krauss’s behaviour of late seems to be embarrassing at best, and not quite the sort of thing that makes one proud to be either atheist or physicist. For Krauss to write a book of philosophical claims and yet to say that philosophers of science have nothing of interest to say to anyone but themselves is quite the whiplash display of specious logic. The desire to attack things as unimportant simply because one does not and does not wish to understand them seems to me as good a definition of a “nerd” (in the pejorative sense) as any, and as this squabble continues my respect for Albert has only increased–regardless of the Templeton thing.

  13. Dan D. says:

    As a theist (and scientist) myself, I’m heartened to see that not every atheist is against us on this point at least: namely that science does not get to determine what “progress” and “knowledge” means for every other field of inquiry, and that mere dismissals of entire fields of inquiry that have existed for thousands of years do not count as arguments.

  14. MathPhys says:

    As a theist (and a scientist) myself, I never understood what the fight is about. Anyone who has 1. solved an algebraic equation, and 2. fell in love, must realize that the fully-rational and the totally-irrational compartments of our brains coexist, perfectly peacefully, right next to each other, and that they often operate at the same time.

  15. hdz says:

    Let me quote a passage from the Kraus interview in The Atlantic on which you provide a link:

    “Is there an empirical frontier for this? How do we observe a multiverse?
    Krauss: Right. How do you tell that there’s a multiverse if the rest of the universes are outside your causal horizon? It sounds like philosophy. At best. But imagine that we had a fundamental particle theory that explained why there are three generations of fundamental particles, and why the proton is two thousand times heavier than the electron, and why there are four forces of nature, etc. And it also predicted a period of inflation in the early universe, and it predicts everything that we see and you can follow it through the entire evolution of the early universe to see how we got here. Such a theory might, in addition to predicting everything we see, also predict a host of universes that we don’t see. If we had such a theory, the accurate predictions it makes about what we can see would also make its predictions about what we can’t see extremely likely. And so I could see empirical evidence internal to this universe validating the existence of a multiverse, even if we could never see it directly.”

    Well – as yet it requires some imagination to have such a theory that would convince us of the existence of these multiverses on empirical grounds.

    But would it? Imagine further there were then a bunch of influential conservative physicists who insist that “… this theory is not made for the universe, but only a tool to calculate certain laboratory data.” And that “we cannot say anything about physical reality but only about our knowledge.”

    This is in fact what permanently happens to Everett’s interpretation, since here we do have a perfect and extremely well confirmed theory for more than 80 years on which his multiverse is built: the Schroedinger equation.

  16. PS says:

    JC: many of “this generation” of particle physicists are really very, very smart people. The question of why they haven’t accomplished that much really has to be answered not by dismissing them all as second-class mathematicians, but by looking at the sociology of the field of string theory and particle physics. I think something really wrong has happened in the culture of this field. However, I can’t quite put my finger on what and I don’t know whether it’ll correct itself if the LHC starts producing interesting data.

  17. cormac says:

    I don’t understand all the hostility to the Krauss book. I found it a clear and enetertaining read, intorducing the public to a simple concept that has been known to physicists for many years; that a universe does not necessarily need a cause, according to quantum physics.
    He does not say this is what happened, he simply explains the possibility with admirable clarity. I found both the review by Albert quite poor and rather biased; and Horgan doesn’t really engage with the material at all

  18. Foster Boondoggle says:

    Albert has earned a certain amount of skepticism for his views on physics by lending his academic credentials to the cult pseudo-science of “What the Bleep…” a few years back. That might go some way towards accounting for the level of vitriol from Krauss. It’s a bit harder to understand the tone of Albert’s review of Krauss. Albert seems to be saying that you can never make a philosopher stop asking “why” at the end of a chain of explanation. But so what? Krauss’ point is that, where 40 years ago we had no idea how the Big Bang got going (we couldn’t go back before Weinberg’s “First 3 Minutes”), now we have speculations (admittedly) that are at least grounded in models based on currently viable fundamental theories, and that explain the emergence of “everything” – i.e., the observable universe – from “nothing”, i.e., the physicist’s vacuum. Yeah, the philosopher can keep asking “why this, why that”, but that seems ultimately sterile, and a losing battle for mindshare. (It’s the “god-of-the-gaps” all over again.) More explanatory power is better than less.

  19. Bernhard says:

    “I don’t understand all the hostility to the Krauss book. I found it a clear and enetertaining read, intorducing the public to a simple concept that has been known to physicists for many years; that a universe does not necessarily need a cause, according to quantum physics”

    The problem begins with Krauss and his unnecessary hostility towards philosophy. If that was Krauss´s only point he could probably have sold it to some people, but not satisfied with that, he began a silly debate about nothingness. He is even backed up by incredibly silly comments from Dawkins (who probably got more impressed then he should because he is himself not a physicist and because it fits his anti-religion agenda).

    When Peter first said this debate over nothingness was silly I complained, but I regret, this debate is not only silly but pointless and the blame is on Krauss´s side. He wanted to make the headlines by basically saying physics has the answer to the philosophical nothingness question. When confronted with the problem of quantum laws themselves being something he used “brilliant” arguments like “if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff, then I’ll go with that.” Really, what is he talking about? He should have made an argument of physics and stayed there and not gotten into stuff he clearly demonstrates he is ignorant about (philosophy). He wrote a popular book, not a philosophical essay nor a physics article. That he wants to use it to attack philosophy is simply ridiculous.

    In the end I think he is trying to promote the book by making this cretinous noise and is being successful.

  20. JC says:

    Here is the first sentence from the preface of the “nothing” book:

    “In the interests of full disclosure right at the outset I must admit that I am not sympathetic to the conviction that creation requires a creator, which is at the basis of all of the world’s religions. ”

    This arrogant clown claims that “a creator” is at the basis of ALL of the world’s religions. First, take Papua New Guinea for example, there are roughly 840 indigenous languages. I guess probably there are more than 500 indigenous religions too. Did this clown check all of them before he made this claim ?
    Not to mention that many branches of Buddhism do not proclaim the need of an omnipotent creator deity.

    This is just another example that Krauss should just shut up about those things that he is ignorant.

  21. Aidyan says:

    As a theist (and scientist) myself, who found Dawkins, Hawking, Krauss et al. atheistic arguments always quite primitive and unreflective, I must however say that if the debate has fallen to these lows it is also because of the incompetence of the other side, that of the minority of theist scientists and philosophers who could not offer serious alternatives, or worst aligned with the new-age pseudo-science. Most of us are still stuck in even more untenable conceptions which refuse to give up anti-Darwinian semi-creationists biblical interpretations and more or less implicit anthropocentric views of our place in the Universe. Obviously, a viewpoint that is easy to disprove first and ridicule then. This forced theist intellectuals to silence especially in the last years (where are they?), and gave ample space to a ‘scientistic’ militant atheist movement which, once it believed it has won its crusade, now targets what it considers the last remanent of ‘time-wasters’: all philosophers, theists and atheists without distinctions. But I think that, if the former would once and forever accept Darwin, acknowledge homo sapiens as a species as others, reconsider the unwarranted ontological meaning assigned to categories as ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ in biology and physics, and drop their religious dogmatic interpretations of reality, it would become easy to debunk the naive arguments of the latter.

  22. BDennehy says:

    I’m not sure if I speak for anyone else here but Peter could you please put a stop to yet more people mouthing off about their particular take on religion and spirituality!

  23. Peter Woit says:


    I agree completely. Been planning to take action, but spent the morning bike-riding along the Hudson river, saw the Space Shuttle fly by three times on its way to landing at JFK.


    Please help keep this blog free of religion, both pro and anti, of any stripe. There’s plenty of other places to debate such issues, and rarely is such debate interesting.

    Off to lunch, then some more updates to this posting…

  24. Allan Rosenberg says:

    I think Krause is being totally irresponsible in his attacks on philosophers. If you physicists aren’t careful, the philosophers of physics will go on strike, and then you’ll really be screwed.

  25. Pingback: Much Ado About Nothing | Not Even Wrong

  26. cormac says:

    Peter: I agree, and Bernhard also has a point. I think it was a great pity to have an endorsement from Dawkins at the end of the book, it introduced a completely unnecessary religious/anti-religious element to the book

  27. SpearMarktheSecond says:

    The great part about the forum is getting Michael Tuts, a real scientist and not a pettifogging fop, up on stage. He is worth 10 or 100 of the Krauses and the Greenes.

  28. OMF says:

    What an embarrassingly public waste of time and effort.

    If I was a public representative, I can’t say I’d be inclined to fund an SSC or other projects after reading the likes of this.

  29. Bob Levine says:


    Sorry, but I cannot see the logic behind your comment. The SSC represented the best chance the world ever had to probe energy scales at a range likely to yield robust data that could have shed light on BSM physics; the chance for a real, empirically robust breakthrough was there, and was lost. The comments in this thread reflect pseudoscientific issue that reflect the lack of any new findings to drive responsible, creative theorizing—nothingness and multiverse studies are what we have, arguably, *because* the SSC wasn’t built.

    There were some interesting sensory deprivation experiments in the sixties that showed that people deprive of all stimuli (total darkness, deadened sound, aqueous suspension etc.) start to hallucinate after being left in that state long enough. What we’re see now, on a variety of ‘not even wrong’ fronts, seems like a different version of the same thing. Canceling projects designed to gather new data is a good chunk of what lead us to this state—not the whole story, certainly. Given the problem, how would your prescription be a constructive response?

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Levine,

    The standard argument for tolerating multiverse/pre-big-bang nonsense by prominent theorists is that it may not be science, but it gets the public interested in and excited about science, and hopefully they’ll then go on to the real thing. The problem is that if the nonsense goes too far, people will realize this and the field will get discredited. I think OMF is pointing to that danger. I have no idea how serious it really is, but physicists in general might want to think about the desirability of speaking up against nonsense promoted by their colleagues. There are now a lot of prominent physicists out there spouting nonsense about the multiverse, very few speaking up with a more sensible viewpoint.

  31. OMF says:

    The problem is that if the nonsense goes too far, people will realize this and the field will get discredited. I think OMF is pointing to that danger.

    I think this danger has long since been realised. Frankly, given the state of the field, I don’t think big physics projects should get any funding, or at least, not before big astronomy, or chemical, or engineering projects, etc.

    I wouldn’t give funding to a field whose top representatives spend most of their time in cat fights with creationists, and giving interviews for CGI-ridden cable documentaries. It might sound harsh, but giving these people funding is actually part of the problem.

  32. Peter Woit says:


    This might be a good argument for defunding some subfields of theoretical physics, but the experimentalists building and using tools like the LHC really have nothing at all to do with the multiverse-maniacs. If you take away funding for things like the LHC, you won’t affect multiverse-mania, since those engaged in it aren’t funded from there. Worse, if you got rid of LHC funding, you’d get rid of the people in the field doing actual science, leaving only the pseudo-science in place.

  33. OMF says:

    In that case, I think it is time for experimental(and other) physicists to begin disassociating their fields from the practices exemplified by this particular scandal.

  34. srp says:

    The pity is that Krauss could have been almost as provocative without overreaching. Proposed re-titling of his book: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”

    The argument is that modern physics makes the constraints on “nothing” a lot more stringent than the casual thinker (and possibly the uninformed philosopher) realize. In the interview, Krauss claims to go beyond saying that empty space in our universe is unstable and will spawn particles and such. He claims to show that space and time themselves will emerge from quantum fields, so that a no-space, no-time, no-stuff field is unstable, too.

    So Albert is correct–you can’t stop asking “where did that come from?” because the fields’ existence is taken as given–but Krauss has a point (assuming he’s got the physics right) that logically banning creation ex nihilo requires a much more nihilistic nihilo than it used to.

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