There’s much in the news at the moment about the fact that Stephen Hawking in his latest book The Grand Design states that the universe was created out of nothing.
How can that be? How can anything be created out of nothing?
Here’s an extract from my book, Where Are We, What Are We, Why Are We? that deals with these very questions.
If subatomic particles are actually nothing more than energy [This extract follows a description of subatomic particles as forms of energy] this means that as a result solid objects can be thought of as quite literally being made up of nothing more than energy too.
The main difference between the energy as we experience it when we touch a live electric wire and the energy in solid matter is that in solid matter the energy has a stable configuration, tied up within its atoms. So when you sit in a chair the energy in the atoms of the chair stops you falling through it, while when you sit in an electric chair the consequences don’t bear thinking about.
We’re so used to the idea of the energy of electricity that we tend to forget that we don’t really know what it actually is, only what it does. You have to go back to the nineteenth century, when the humble electric light bulb was a cutting-edge invention, in order to relive the feeling of wonder that the phenomenon of electricity evoked.
Think of the solidity of matter as being the result of the electric forces acting within each atom – that each atom is in essence nothing more than a stable force field that stops other atoms entering the particular volume of space that it occupies (a little like mini versions of the force fields or deflector screens that are generated by spacecraft in many science fiction stories – the main difference being that while science fiction force fields are used to stop photon torpedoes or other advanced and improbable weaponry from reaching a spaceship, atomic force fields are more commonly associated with stopping coffee cups falling through table tops, at least in philosophical discussions).
So, if atoms are made up of bundles of energy that are in a configuration that forms a stable entity, what form does the energy take at a truly fundamental level?
The currently favoured theory is that at the most fundamental level everything is composed of vibrating strands of energy called strings.
The idea that the stuff of the universe is composed of vibrating strings gives the impression that even at this fundamental level the “stuff” is “solid” in some way: the idea of strings sounds very much like the idea of particles after all. However, the string involved is only one-dimensional, with no thickness, like an infinitely thin line (although they have other dimensions “wrapped up” inside them, for mathematical reasons).
These strings are thought of as vibrating at different frequencies, with each frequency making the string manifest itself as a different subatomic particle – a little like the way that the strings on musical instruments give rise to different notes or that different wavelengths of light give rise to different colours.
String theory isn’t the only game in town however. Other theories propose that everything is composed of point-like entities rather than extended string-like ones, while others invoke sheets or membranes of some fundamental “medium”.
Points, strings, sheets: take your pick.
Whether string theory is correct or not, the idea that the fundamental “stuff of existence” is essentially something that vibrates does possess a quality that seems to be essential for a theory of the fundamental nature of everything: the essential stuff of existence must be very simple, yet be able to manifest itself in more complex ways. In other words, if the “stuff” is a vibration, then the same sort of vibration can give rise to all of the different manifestations of matter and energy, simply by vibrating at different rates.
Let’s by-pass the issue of whether the fundamental nature of the stuff of the universe is closer to strings, membranes or whatever, and instead just concentrate on the concept that it is a disturbance of some kind, or an irregularity of some sort, in the empty nothingness of the “primordial void”.
Here we start running into serious conceptual difficulties, as this primordial void or expanse of nothingness is a tricky thing to get your head round, to say the least.
How to imagine nothingness?
Of course it’s impossible, partly because our brains just aren’t wired to conceive of such a thing (for everyday purposes it’s a pretty pointless and needless exercise after all), but also because nothingness simply isn’t like anything. Mainly because it isn’t anything.
It’s probably best to not even try to imagine it, and to just accept that it’s there, if “there” is a word that can be used in this situation. However, if we do want to have a go at imagining it we have to resort to slightly unreliable and inadequate metaphors.
A suitable metaphor for nothingness may be to think of it as being like a flat, perfectly still surface of water extending endlessly, with the flatness of the water representing the total featurelessness of nothingness. To differentiate between this profound ultimate nothingness and other more day-to-day nothingnesses let’s call it Nothingness – with a capital N. In fact let’s call this endless flat expanse the Sea of Nothingness. In this infinite, shoreless Sea of Nothingness any disturbances in the form of ripples on the surface could be likened to the vibrations that give rise to “stuff”.
These particular ripples or vibrations aren’t to be confused with the vibrating strings of string theory. The vibrations I’m describing here are metaphorical vibrations or ripples in a metaphorical medium – the Sea of Nothingness. (If anything, think of these metaphorical vibrations as giving rise to the vibrations of the strings in string theory – imagine that the strings of string theory are floating on the surface of the Sea of Nothingness and that the undulations in the sea are causing the undulations of the strings – because the strings are riding the sea’s undulations.)
The idea that everything in the universe, all matter and energy, is the manifestation of ripples in Nothingness, and that these ripples are the simplest “things” that exist, is quite appealing because of one important factor. A ripple, in essence, is a form of wave that has only one fundamental characteristic or property: it goes up and down. If you’re thinking that this up-and-down-ness gives the wave two characteristics rather than one, think of the crest and the trough of the wave as being inseparable parts of the same single characteristic – that a single wave automatically has both parts in very much the same way that a single coin automatically has a heads and a tails, and in fact can’t exist without having both.
The ripple’s possession of only one characteristic is important because whatever it is that exists at the most fundamental level, it can only have one property. This is because, working on the assumption that only one property can arise at a time, having two properties makes something more complex than absolute fundamentality allows.
Grafted onto this one property are other characteristics such as its wavelength and amplitude as secondary features.
Not only is the simplicity of the concept of a wave-like disturbance being the fundamental phenomenon that manifests itself as matter and energy appealing, but the concept has yet another appealing feature.
Look at the wave in the figure below. This represents a ripple on the surface of the Sea of Nothingness (Notice the flat, featureless nothingness extending endlessly on either side of the ripple).
As you can see, the wave goes up and down, as waves do: it has a crest and a trough.
Imagine the crest of the wave as being “positive” energy, and the trough of the wave as being “negative” energy, as depicted in the graph below.
You can see that the positive energy and the negative energy (the shaded areas in the figure) are the same, but are in opposite directions. This means that when the energy of the crest and the energy of the trough are added together to give the wave’s total energy they add up to nothing.
This is very pleasing philosophically, as it means that although the wave exists, the sum of its parts is zero, so in some ways its existence adds up to nothing.
Because this ripple is a disturbance in Nothingness, it can be said that Nothingness actually becomes Something – and that because the up and down parts of the ripple cancel out energy-wise and don’t add anything to the overall status of Nothingness, you can still say that Nothingness nevertheless contains nothing.
Because the ripple straddles either side of the flat line in the graph – the line that represents Nothingness – the universe can be thought of as hanging on either side of Nothingness.
I expect that you’ve been asking yourself “These ripples in Nothingness are all very well, but what caused them?”
Here we run slap-bang into the infinite regression problem – what made the thing that made the thing?
Bear in mind that my ripples in Nothingness aren’t real ripples, they are metaphorical ripples. And metaphors, after all, are by their nature imprecise comparisons of the things that they are standing in for – if they weren’t imprecise they’d actually be exactly the same as the thing they represented, and thus wouldn’t be metaphors at all. Due to this imprecision you could say that if metaphors were elastic bands you could stretch any metaphor until it snapped.
The metaphor of ripples is just a way of visualising something that is impossible to comprehend. The ripples in the Sea of Nothingness are, by definition, the most basic disturbance in the uniform, all pervasive state of Nothingness that underlies everything. The phenomenon that these metaphorical ripples are standing in for is not caused by anything (at least in any way that we can meaningfully understand). They are just something in the nature of Nothingness (Again, whatever that means).
In fact, if anything, they are the thing that’s at the beginning of the infinitely regressive chain of events that I just mentioned. They are the thing that caused the thing.
The idea of ripples in a (metaphorical) Sea of Nothingness may be seized upon by those amongst us who are of a religious inclination, who may then say “Ah-ha, yes. The ripples are caused by God dipping his fingers in the Sea of Nothingness! Thus it is that God created Everything!”
This, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your outlook), isn’t possible, as the ripples are the simplest thing that there can be, by definition. This means that they can’t be caused by something that’s more complex than they are themselves, such as an all-knowing entity that happens to have fingers. Even metaphorical fingers.
Talking about complexity, there’s one final point that has to be mentioned about these metaphorical ripples. I’ve been stating that they are the simplest thing in existence: that there is nothing simpler than they are. However, if you look at the shape of the ripple you can see that it itself is not totally simple: it starts to rise up gradually, then rises steeply for a while before flattening off and then dropping down again. That’s quite a lot of things to be going on for something that there’s nothing simpler than. In “reality” the ripple would be a single blip, with no initial gradual appearance and final decay – it would in fact be more like a digital pulse that’s just “there” rather than an analogue wave that rises and decays.
So there you have it. Despite its incredible complexity the universe is little more than the result of disturbances or ripples in the void. And despite the universe’s “content-rich” appearance the sum total of its contents (the peaks and troughs of the ripples in the void) adds up to nothing.
You could indeed say that because the crests and the troughs of the ripples cancel out when added together, and they thus in combination add up to nothing, the end result of the ripples is less than the sum of their parts. While of course, just looking at the universe around us shows that at the same time the end result of all of these ripples is definitely greater than the sum of their parts.∗
The universe is both everything and nothing. It just sounds right (to me, at least).
Nothing becomes Something. But at the same time it all still adds up to nothing, and thus it remains Nothing. You could actually say that the universe is composed of Nothing. That “Nothing exists”. As in “Something exists”.
This rather disconcerting fact that the universe and all of the matter within it is made out of nothing at all could at first sight seem to imply that the universe is totally meaningless. You can’t get more meaningless than nothing, after all.
However, the fact that matter is nothing doesn’t in any way imply that nothing matters.
In fact, because the universe is made of Nothing (the capitalised Nothing that exists in the Sea of Nothingness), it can very much be said that Nothing matters.
You may be wondering how anything as complicated as a universe can manifest itself out of something as simple as ripples. A ripple, after all, has only two components – an up part and a down part.
It’s not as far-fetched as it first sounds. Bear in mind, for instance, that the entire digital content of a computer, ranging from the calculations that it performs, through to the photos and videos that it displays and the music that it plays, is composed entirely of different sequences of only two states: on and off – or as it is expressed digitally, of zeros and ones. This two digit “language” is known as binary code and is the underlying principle of all digital technology.
It’s not only computers that have a very basic code underlying their ultimate complexity. Life itself has such a code too. The genetic code that is carried by the DNA that is the building-block of all living things is essentially created by a sequence of only four separate chemicals, adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine (known as A, T, C and G for short), spread along the DNA double helix molecule (See illustration below). One side of the helix is from the mother and the other side from the father: the sides fuse together like a long zip, with the A molecules on one side linking with the T molecules on the other, and the C molecules with the G molecules. The order in which these chemical bonds occur along the molecule determines the genetic characteristics of their possessor. Very simple – but just look at the results in the mirror!