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In Cosmology, There's a Free Lunch After All

Warning: Things are not as they seem. You thought that nothing comes from nothing. That quaint notion was drummed into you in school when you learned the First Law of Thermodynamics. Sorry, ladies and gentlemen. Everything you thought you know is wrong. Everything comes from nothing.

Modern cosmologists are increasingly fascinated by nothingness. It stimulates and titillates them, disturbing their dogmatic slumbers with visions and dreams. Having already been worshiping at the Shrine of Nobody for years, they just realized that Nobody is wedded to Nothing. "Fantastic!" they think. Even better, Nobody and Nothing have already produced their first child: Nonsense.

Just look at the recent issue of Nature, the world's most respected science journal.1 Nature chose Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, to write in glowing terms about Lawrence Krauss's new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (Free Press, 2012). Don't tell him there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Krauss took him to the Nothing Café and showed him the menu. Scharf ordered the multiverse special:

Furthermore, Krauss points out, our Universe seems to have a net gravitational energy that is suspiciously close to zero: its existence may "cost" nothing, requiring no energy input. This raises the possibility of the ultimate free lunch -- of a cosmos that is merely a piece of borrowed stuff, having appeared spontaneously, like a virtual particle, and been filled with matter and radiation simply as a consequence of the energy of empty space. Ours may be one of an infinite array of universe-like things, just one instance in a multiverse.
Krauss assures Scharf that Nobody and Nothing have a lot of experience in the cosmic kitchen. They've been cooking up universes since infinity past. Nobody has actually seen Nothing produce something, even if Krauss has not. Scharf's stomach growls. Krauss hands him an appetizer. It's his own concoction, laying out "this remarkable story" as a taste of things to come: "Krauss steers it soberly and with grace, taking time to let the reader digest the material."

It's awfully silent in the kitchen, which is off limits to guests. Surely the cook has the dark matter in the oven by now. "What can you tell me about the ingredients?" Scharf asks while they wait.

He notes that a number of vital empirical discoveries are, ominously, missing from our cosmic model. Dark matter is one. Despite decades of astrophysical evidence for its presence, and plausible options for its origins, physicists still cannot say much about it. We don't know what this major mass component of the Universe is, which is a bit of a predicament. We even have difficulty accounting for every speck of normal matter in our local Universe. This does not mean that something is wrong with the current picture, but that we astronomers should be uncomfortable about embracing a phenomenon such as dark energy when we still have a mess to tidy up elsewhere.
That explains it; the cooks are distracted cleaning up the mess that Nonsense made. They'll be back at work shortly. Krauss reassures himself. "Don't you remember that endorsement you saw on the menu?" he asks. "Our Chief Prophet insists this is the place to be. Besides, eating here is a lot better than at that Something place across town; you know, that disgusting establishment where all the creationists hang out. In fact, I've heard that it's owned and operated by Somebody."

Scharf remembers. He retreats into his visions and dreams of the free lunch Nothing is preparing, smiling fondly at the prospect of the Something joint losing out to Nobody.

What does this mean for humanity? In a provocative afterword, evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins writes that the apparent near-inevitability of something arising out of unstable nothingness, as described by Krauss, is devastating for theologians and creationists. Dawkins is right. But it is also invigorating for the rest of us, because in this nothingness there are many wonderful things to see and understand.
Patiently waiting, knife and fork in hand, Scharf recalls the jingle from the Nothing Café commercial:

Nothin' says bluffin' like somethin' out of Nothin', and Nobody says it best.

Literature Cited

1. Caleb Scharf, Cosmology: Plucked from the vacuum. Nature 481 (26 January 2012), p. 440. doi:10.1038/481440a.