Making sense of nothing

How could there be nothing?

What was before the Big Bang?

Some people say that asking what was there before the Big Bang is akin to asking what is north of the North Pole; there simply isn’t and wasn’t anything. But how could that be? It’s hard to wrap my mind around it. It’s just as hard to wrap my mind around the fact that everything we see around us, including the things that are too far away to see, was once contained in an impossibly tiny sachet. Or at least the sachet provided the seed for everything we see today. We know that the Big Bang eventually produced the essential light elements that are so abundant in the universe. We know it was so hot that atoms could not even form until the temperature cooled. We know that the light elements grouped together after the fundamental forces in physics split into four distinct categories, and that if enough hydrogen atoms pull on each other stars will form. Inside of stars the temperature and pressure is so great that the atomic nuclei of hydrogen atoms can fuse, a process known as fusion - something that could solve many problems on Earth if we were able to recreate and harness its amazing power. Fusion is responsible for all the heavy elements we see in everyday life, and those we cannot see or see less often. Unstable stars eventually hurl heavy elements into space where they condense into gas clouds and ultimately planets and other bodies.

All of this was possible from nothing.


How can that be? How can we have something from nothing?

It’s a question asked by anybody who takes the time to think about our origins.

Religious people that claim this is the ultimate reason why God must exist. It is also the focus of Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing, which is much more informative and evidence-based reading than any religious text in regards to the formation of the universe, objectively speaking. But how can it be? Our whole lives we have been taught you can’t get something out of nothing. There is no free lunch. You get out what you put in. If matter and antimatter annihilate one another, photons form. If the temperature is low enough photons allow electrons to join atomic nuclei and form atoms. Apparently, contrary to everything we have been taught about the natural world, something can come from nothing when you deal with the subatomic quantum world. Thinking about processes in this world requires one to forget everything about intuition and common sense. It supports a lot of things that would intuitively seem wrong based on a lifetime of experience in the macro-world. It is also the most successfully tested and accurate theory in the history of science.  Anybody who trusts the power of observation must trust in quantum theory to explain these things. Those who trust in logic might experience some cognitive dissonance because logic and observation do not match up in the subatomic realm. However, unless one wants to trust in dogma and a book that claims superiority over earned knowledge, quantum theory is the path.

But what does it actually say about the formation of life, planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe itself if it came from absolutely nothing? What physical processes occurred to make this extraordinary leap? The answer is not firmly known, but there is good reason to believe what Lawrence Krauss and his colleagues tell us based on findings not only in quantum mechanics, but also theoretical physics, astrophysics, and cosmology. Particles have been shown to “pop” in and out of existence, literally appearing and disappearing. Nobody knows exactly how all the matter, antimatter, dark matter, energy, and dark energy were contained in a singularity not much larger than a plank length in diameter – nobody even knows what dark energy really is. But the evidence is there that the Big Bang happened 13.78 billion years ago, from several different sources. You can hear the leftover radiation from the event in the form of static. You can see the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. The universe is expanding, indicating a starting point. And space is exactly the temperature one would expect in a universe that was created in a hot big bang.

OK, so, given the evidence that the Big Bang almost certainly occurred, that means a singularity did exist. That leaves us with three options: a deity created it and set it all in motion, it popped into existence on its own, or it had somehow always been there.

Believing that a deity created the miniscule ball that would become our entire known universe does nothing to address the question of how nothing became something because it doesn’t account for how the creator was created – or even how the singularity itself was concocted out of nothing. Even if the singularity was magically created by this being, what created the being? Something still had to come from nothing. Saying the deity was always there for eternity just avoids the question and puts it into the realm of unanswerable, a cowardly move in the eyes of science.

I don’t know if we will ever know what banged and how everything we know of came from out of thin vacuum. But I do know that I, along with countless others, will not stop asking these questions and searching for answers.

We may never know, but we will make progress.

Nothing will not stop us.