Friday, March 30, 2018

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss

Should have stuck to the science and skipped the philosophy
In his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing, physicist and cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss examines recent discoveries about the history and makeup of our universe in order to investigate the question of why there is any universe at all. Krauss begins by recounting how scientists arrived at the current prevailing estimates of the universe’s size, age, shape, and rate of expansion, and how the processes of determining these vital statistics led to the discovery of dark matter and dark energy. Then, in an attempt to explain how the Big Bang might have sprung from nothingness, Krauss delves into quantum mechanics, touches upon string theory, and ventures into the multiverse.

It isn’t until around Chapter 7 or 8 that Krauss really gets down to the nitty gritty of addressing the fundamental questions of how it is possible for matter to spontaneously spring from nothingness and why there is actually a necessity for it to occur. Krauss does manage to answer the how question, though not entirely and not very clearly, to the best of our scientific knowledge to date. For the question of why, however, he mostly falls back on the anthropic argument, which roughly paraphrased takes the philosophical stance that the reason there’s a universe so suited to human life is because if there weren’t such a universe, we wouldn’t be around to ask the question.

I’m not qualified to critique Krauss’s physics and cosmology, though judging by what he reveals about his career in this book, he seems to have accomplished great things in those fields. As a reader and a book reviewer, however, I am free to criticize his writing, and the fact is he doesn’t always get his points across very articulately. On the one hand, Krauss’s impressive résumé is a big part of the reason why one would want to read this book. On the other hand, a skilled science journalist could have done a much better job of explaining these concepts to laypeople. The prose of this book is more confusing and difficult to follow than, for example, an article in Scientific American, and it yields less information despite its lengthier text.

Another disappointing aspect of the book is the surprising amount of atheist rhetoric. I’m an atheist myself, so this doesn’t offend me personally, but I read this book because I wanted to learn about physics. Instead, Krauss wastes a lot of pages preaching on philosophical matters that readers of this book will likely have already figured out for themselves. He also does so in a rather snide way, with the intention not to convert theists but to shame them. So why bother? Rather than going to such great lengths to argue why intelligent design doesn’t belong in a physics book, he should have just left it out. If a Christian physicist spent the better part of three or four chapters espousing his religious views, he would be vilified by the scientific academy. So why is it any more acceptable when an atheist does it? To hammer it home even more, the book includes an afterword by prominent atheist spokesman Richard Dawkins, who only restates everything Krauss already said.

I did learn a bit about the origin of the universe from this book, but not as much as I thought I would. Admittedly, there were a few revelations, but even though I’m not the most ardent reader of science news, a lot of this was review even for me, and, as previously noted, much of it was irrelevant. Because of what I did get out of it, I can’t really give it a bad rating, but there’s got to be other trade books out there that explain this stuff much better than Krauss does.
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