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Book Review: A Universe from Nothing By Lawrence M. Krauss

15 Feb

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than NothingA Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Krauss has managed to draw an almost perfect normal curve (Bell Curve) with this book as far as engagement and content is concerned.

The Start of the Curve

It starts slow by promising us a full whirlwind historic tour from Galileo to CMBR and beyond and takes its own sweet time getting to even Einstein and then dwells on the most known aspects of modern science as if no one has heard of all that before.

The Rise

Then as I was contemplating postponing the book for some future date, Krauss suddenly draws himself up to his full commanding ivory tower height and things suddenly get hard to comprehend. Now I was perked, this was what I was there with him for, after all.

The Peak of the Curve

Maybe it is because that was the only part of the book which I knew not enough about. I had read about the fact that the only way to explain the universe is to postulate an inflationary scenario for the early universe but Krauss puts it in terms which no other author which I have read has done. He makes it beautiful, breath-taking and completely believable that in a few micro seconds the universe expanded by an order of magnitude of 24 and attained the final shape that we see now! And he systematically charts out how this theory was derived based on observed size and density of universe, based on postulated energy of empty space, based on curvature of the universe and on the nature of acceleration of distant ‘standard candles’. During this part of the book as well as the part in which he lists out the reasons for why the universe we live in is flat and accelerating and dominated by energy (as against mass, ie, by repulsive force of acceleration than by attractive force of gravity) and then slam-dunks it in by explaining how all this can only be explained by an inflationary early universe.

The Dip

Just as I was bristling with all the new knowledge and information and thinking of the rave review this book is gonna get and about how knowledgeable I was going to be as I finish it, Krauss grinds the journey to a screeching halt as far as science is concerned. He takes a major left turn and plunges into an entire chapter on speculating if scientists wo trillion years into the future can ever find out the true nature of the universe. The anser is no. All evidence of the origins of universe would be lost or obscured by then and Kraus concludes that it is possible that even with the best scientific method, minds and far advanced technology, it is posible to reach the wrong conclusions. In face no matter how advanced that civilization is they will never know of a world beyond their own meta-galaxy! This is a wonderful thought an Richard Dawkins comments extensively on it in the afterword but surely it didn’t warrant so many pages in al already small book? But in spite of the boring nature of the chapter, it is sill a very profound one – All our attempts to understand anything is limited by the presence of physical evidence, so we must also think about what might already have been obscured from us in the 13.odd billion years of the universe and this is especially true if the inflationary hypothesis is correct because an inflation like that would be like a flood over a crime scene. So the chapter is about humility even though Krauss tried to make it into an argument about why we live in a very special time, the only time we can wonder why it is special. This is again a clear opening to fit a god-of-the-gaps into. I am amazed at how many new avenues Krauss has opened up in this book. Is he secretly against Dawkins and Hitchens?

The Lower End

And then he shifts into trying to explain the universe in terms of the Anthropic Principle which I have a tough time accepting even though I agree with the sturdy logic of it. I just feel it is Wrong, that is all, to explain things by saying that we wouldn’t be here to talk about it if it were not so and that is the answer.

The interest is still held fo a while as he does a critical analysis of string theory and concludes that it is a wonderful mathematical and theoretical edifice but it has proven/predicted not one single observation in 25 years or so and hence is more or less a dead-end. He plainly asks the common reader to get over the string theory hype and stop talking about String Theory to show how knowledgeable you are. If anyone talks of string theory and TOE to you, count on the fact that he heard about some stuff during the Great Hype and never bothered enough to understand or keep up-to-date.

The Long Tail of the Curve

And then comes the low point of the book, which Krauss probably put in only to gain traction with Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The long rant about religious claims and about their argument about “How can something come out of nothing” – the only answer is that it does, it still is happening and something can also go back into nothing in the future. So what does that prove? Not much I think except to accept that the universe is right strange, brotha. Then comes the epilogue about how science has to be respected and all that Carl Sagan stuff as science as a candle in the dark, the normal curve tending towards zero on the tail now, reader barely awake.

The Anomaly

And finally, the book winds down with a poetic afterword by Dawkins registering a major upturn anomaly in the normal curve towards the very end. (any good normal distribution will have the outliers after all).

Takeaways

The reader can come way from the book with a feeling that he now knows some ‘deep’ quantum kick-ass fundamentals without having been stretched as much as, say, a Brian Greene would do to you in The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. This must be the reason for the sudden popularity of the book and comparisons with ‘The Origin of Species’ and with A Brief History of Time as the next great opening of windows by science and as the final nail in the coffin that Darwin built for religion. Richard Dawkins sure sounds very pep in his afterword, as if, now that this book is out, no more argument is possible.

I am not to sure about that of course. Ultimately the book is making the claim that everything we can measure and see and know anything at all about, ever, is just 1% of the universe. That is to say that physics can never know anything about 99% of what exist in the universe. Now, that is dangerous territory and can play right into the hands of religious aficionados. I wonder why Dawkins was elated by the book and not feverishly going back to the drawing board to counter all the hundreds of nonsensical faith-based claims that can crop up from this information.

Final Word

In the end, I liked the book. It was worth the read for that amazing middle portion and for the analysis on string theory. but to compare it with The Origin of Species as a landmark work or to talk as if it is the definitive word in the argument strikes me as hyperbole. It is a well-written work accessible to the lay-reader that tries to explain how much modern science does not know. If that fills you with a sense of wonder, this is the book for you.

Post Script

PS. I really don’t get why Ian McEwan turned up to comment on the cover. Some mix up? Hmm…

View all my reviews

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10 Comments

Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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10 responses to “Book Review: A Universe from Nothing By Lawrence M. Krauss

  1. Personal Concerns

    February 15, 2012 at 13:26

    thanks for sharing this great review (once again)!
    i liked the idea of putting ur journey through the pages of the book in the form of a graph- made for an interesting read.
    I haven’t read enough of these ‘science’ books but was reminded of Edmund Husserl’s “Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology” which presents another side to what our understanding of science is (which more or less governs the positions taken in books such as Krauss’s). Would like to see that reviewed on your blog sometime! (In case you decide to read it)
    Cheers!

     
    • SuperTramP

      February 15, 2012 at 13:31

      Thanks for the recommendation! If it is not too expensive I’ll try to get hold of it soon.

      And thanks for the generous comment too 🙂

       
  2. Udaybhanu Chitrakar

    February 26, 2012 at 11:10

    Total energy of the universe has been found to be zero. This has given scientists like Stephen hawking and Lawrence M krauss an opportunity to say that as total energy of the universe is zero, so it can create itself from nothing. Whereas we the God-believers have shown that if this total energy is indeed zero, then it becomes damn easy to answer the question “Who created God”. Actually this question has already been answered that can be read in the following link:
    http://scigod.com/index.php/sgj/article/view/76

    So I will say that it is a most welcome news for us God-believers that total energy of our universe has been found to be exactly zero.

     
    • SuperTramP

      February 26, 2012 at 11:29

      This is what i was talking about when I said the Krauss has left more loopholes open than what he managed to close. I will head over to your link to see it soon but from my understanding that is not really the central argument.

      Thanks for stopping by!

       
  3. tearmatt

    April 23, 2012 at 12:32

    Well what an excellent review, I shall go out and buy this book purely bassed on this review! Thanks for posting it!! 🙂

     

"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?" - Walt Whitman

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