Conjuring the Universe Review

Introduction to the Book

Peter Atkins is a respected professor of Chemistry, and fellow of Lincoln College Oxford. He is also a prominent atheist and has taken part in several debates with high-profile Christian apologists such as William Lane-Craig and Richard Swinburne. He is certainly outspoken on the topic, his position clear. His atheism is staunch. Atkins is adamant that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God, and that the belief that there is one is “rather foolish”. Despite Atkins’ strong rhetoric on the topic, his book is much more conciliatory by comparison.

Despite the book’s focus on the fundamental laws of physics, and how the physical universe could have arisen from nothing, Atkins is a chemist, not a physicist, by nature. Having said that, Atkins’ knowledge of basic theoretical physics is accurate and used effectively to argue for his hypothesis. The arguments that Atkins does put forward though are best described as speculative. But that’s because they have to be. Nobody knows what the fundamental laws of physics actually are and so it is a currently hopeless endeavour to try and produce an account of how these laws, which we don’t know, came from nothing!

Wisely Atkins recognises that he is by no means close to proving that the universe and its laws can arise from nothing. His aim then is not to do this, but instead to bash the lazy intuition we have that something can’t come from nothing and to give a plausible account of how the laws of nature look like the product of “indolence” and “anarchy”. The laws may appear “designed” on the surface, or too complex to arise naturally, but if you dig deeper one finds that the laws of nature could arise from the symmetry of nothing and particles behaving randomly. The book is an engaging, technically accurate, and convincing account of how the assumption that the universe can’t come from nothing is unwarranted.

Laws from Symmetry

Think about some of the laws of physics which you might have learnt at school: Conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, conservation of angular momentum. How come these physical quantities are conserved? I’ve actually already written an article about this: Symmetry at the Heart of Physics.  It turns out due to a wonderful theorem proved by Emmy Noether that conservation laws are a result of global symmetries in a system.

Conservation of energy comes from the fact that natural laws are “time symmetric” – they work just as well when you reverse time as when it flows forward. Conservation of momentum comes from the fact that space is homogeneous and that whatever lab you perform an experiment in, the results will be the same. Conservation of angular momentum comes from the fact that the universe is rotationally symmetric – it looks the same however you rotate it.

What Atkins argues is that these symmetries, and hence the conservation laws that they entail, are exactly what you’d expect if a universe originated from nothing. The hypothesis of Atkins book is that at first there was nothing, and by nothing he means Nothing – the lack of existence of anything. No particles, no space, no time, no energy. What Atkins postulates is that this Nothing would have posessed all the symmetries that we’ve just mentioned. If it didn’t it wouldn’t be Nothing. If it wasn’t homogeneous, then it would have kinks and twists in it and it wouldn’t be proper Nothing. If Nothing had these symmetries, then the laws of conservation arise courtesy of Noether’s theorem! It’s no surprise then that conservation applies in our universe – because the universe would have inherited the symmetries of Nothing and hence these conservation laws.

Although conceptually this is quite a nice idea, I think there are several problems with it which Atkins doesn’t address comprehensively. For a start, one could argue that Atkins is presupposing the laws of mathematics and that Noether’s theorem is a mathematical one which could not exist to ensure the existence of conservation laws if true Nothing existed. There are some reasons to believe however that mathematics are necessary statements that couldn’t not exist, or even that the entirety of mathematics can be derived from nothing. This is an interesting question, but one that is beyond the scope of the book and indeed one which philosophers of mathematics have not been able to answer conclusively. In the meantime, a more pressing concern is that it isn’t clear that one can meaningfully describe absolute Nothing as possessing symmetry. Of course Nothing can’t be asymmetrical, but it doesn’t then follow that Nothing is symmetrical either. It’s just like how the marital status of Nothing is undefined. Nothing is definitely not married, but that doesn’t mean that Nothing can be called a bachelor either.

Although Atkins doesn’t address this concern directly, he does show evidence that he has given some thought to this conundrum. His solution is to split the “originating from Nothing” into two separate stages. First there is a stage which Atkins dismisses as being beyond the scope of enquiry – too theoretical and unknown to even speculate about. This first stage he describes as a “rolling over” of absolute Nothing into something that is not quite Nothing, but certainly what one could colloquially describe as being nothing. What he may have in mind is a kind of empty, flat spacetime, a total void, but slightly less physical than actually being a region of spacetime. It is to this state that Atkins applies the concept of symmetry and that this “void-like” state would’ve possessed the necessary symmetries (homogeneity, isotropy, rotational symmetry) such that the conservation laws arise. Indeed, because of the fact that it is currently too difficult to properly address how something came from absolute Nothing, Atkins modifies his hypothesis to the belief that the universe came from at least “nothing much” if not absolute Nothing.

The Empty Universe

Having argued the plausibility of conservation laws being able to arise from Nothing, Atkins then addresses the question of how there can be “things” in the universe like energy, momentum and charge if all of these quantities have associated conservation laws. If the universe came from Nothing, and conservation of energy, charge and momentum apply then how can there be any energy, charge or momentum in the universe?

If the universe did indeed come from Nothing, then we might expect there to be no energy, charge, momentum or angular momentum in the universe. It turns out however that we believe this may well be the case. Although we have positive energy, charge and so on in the universe, we also appear to have an equal amount of negative energy, charge and so on. The sum total of these quantities appears to be zero, exactly as the universe’s appearance from Nothing might suggest!

The domination of gravity on cosmological scales and the irrelevance of electromagnetism strongly suggests that there is no overall charge in the universe and that the negative charges exactly cancel out the positive ones. For angular momentum, we know from measuring the angular momenta of galaxies that the sum total of angular momentum in the observable universe is zero. In the case of energy, although it is unknown whether the sum total of all the energy in the universe is zero, it’s likely that it is due to the balance of the negative energy density of empty space and the positive energy density possessed by matter.

Anarchy

The other delightful narrative that Atkins has constructed in his book is of how the other laws of nature which are not conservation laws may arise, not from the intelligent handiwork of a designer, but from dumb, random motions of particles. Atkins employs the “path-integral” formulation of quantum theory to explain how this is possible.

First Atkins considers a familiar law of optics – Snell’s Law of Refraction – which determines how light rays travel through media of varying optical densities. Snell’s law can be derived from a more fundamental principle, that being “Fermat’s Least Time Principle” which asserts that light always takes the path that takes the shortest time from one point to another. While this principle allows us to derive correct laws of physics (Snell’s Law for example), it throws up a concerning question: how does light know which path is the shortest? One possible explanation is that light knows which path is shortest because it actually tries all paths!

This may seem like a ludicrous explanation, but it is indeed a perfectly valid interpretation of the mathematics one uses to describe the situation. On a macroscopic scale, light is modeled as an electromagnetic wave, and waves can interfere with each other constructively and destructively. It turns out that if we allow light to take any path between the two points, then all the paths except the path that takes the least time end up cancelling each other out, destructively interfering with each other. In this way, a narrative you can come up with is that the laws of optics spring from absolute anarchy – light does whatever the hell it wants, but most of what it does just cancels itself out! The laws of physics then just tell us what things aren’t cancelled out in the anarchy!

This procedure also applies to all everyday particles. In quantum mechanics, one has the “path integral formulation” which allows quantum particles to take all possible paths. Since waves and particles are not distinct, these particles have a “wave-like” interference with each other, and as with optics, many paths the particle can take are cancelled out. In the limit of large systems, so much cancellation occurs that particles follow the paths of classical mechanics pretty exactly. In the quantum realm, there isn’t quite as much cancellation, which could be thought of as a reason why quantum things are “smudged out” in superpositions.

Although this is a nice narrative that is perfectly consistent with certain mathematical formulations of Physics, it is necessary to point out that this interpretation is not universally accepted. On Atkins view, it’s the anarchy of particles that leads to differential-equation laws about them, but the belief that particles always take all possible paths is not the standard interpretation. The fundamental laws of physics, if they even exist, are certainly not yet known to us, so it’s impossible to say whether Atkins’ “laws from anarchy” will be a fundamental truth, or an approximation in itself. I do give Atkins the benefit of the doubt here though that his narrative is intended to be illustrative and not definitive. This picture of laws coming from anarchy should be seen as a very interesting and plausible account of how order may come from anarchy, but it is not intended to be a statement of fact.

Conclusion

Atkins continues through the book to explain how other cornerstones of modern physics, such as thermodynamics and electromagnetism, can also be imagined as consequences of this combination of “indolence and anarchy”. Indolence gives rise to symmetries which give rise to conservation laws and fundamental quantities such as charge, momentum, and energy. Allowing anarchy, allowing matter to do whatever it likes, then leads to specific laws of motion, and statistical distributions. Atkins exploits indolence and anarchy in such a remarkably efficient way as to reproduce the flesh of modern physical theories.

One should be cautious not to get too excited over Atkins’ account. While it is extremely compelling and a thoroughly plausible story of how Nothing may be able to produce the universe around us, it is at it’s heart speculative. Atkins’ stretches interpretation of modern physics as far as possible while still remaining within the bounds of what is considered acceptable. There is no reason to dismiss his account on logical grounds, but it is based on selected interpretations and should not be worshiped as a canonical description of how the universe came from Nothing.

Despite this, anyone wishing to resolutely claim that the emergence of the universe from Nothing is a logical impossibility should give this book a good, considered read. It’s main accomplishment is to smash the intuition behind the age-old assumption that something can’t come from Nothing.

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