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The Big Nothing

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 27, 2011 11:36 PM

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Since time immemorial, curious people have asked where the universe came from. Nowadays we have a secular answer: the Big Bang. And yet that answer, incredible as it may be, is only partially satisfying. After all, we can still ask where the Big Bang came from; and we can still wonder, sensibly enough, how something (the universe) could come from nothing (whatever came before it). In his new book, On Being, Peter Atkins, a British chemist and science writer, offers an intriguing answer to those questions. To understand how something can come out of nothing, he writes, you have to appreciate the fact that "there probably isn't anything here anyway" -- that "at a deep level there is nothing" in the universe, really. "The substrate of existence," he argues, "is nothing at all."

Consider electrical charge. In our universe, there are positively and negatively charged particles. How did all that charge come into being out of nothingness? It didn't, Atkins writes, since "the total charge is zero." The Big Bang merely separated out a uniform state of chargelessness into many individual instances of charge, positive and negative. The same goes for matter and energy generally: the total amount of matter and energy in the universe seems to be balanced out by huge amounts of "dark matter" and "dark energy," which express themselves in terms of gravitational attraction. The Big Bang didn't create all that energy, as such. Instead, it seems to have turned an initial Nothingness into a "much more interesting and potent" Nothingness -- a "Nothing that has been separated into opposites to give, thereby, the appearance of something."

How much, if anything, does that explain? "The separation of Nothing into opposites still needs explanation," Atkins concedes. Still, he writes, "it seems to me that such a process, though fearsomelessly difficult to explain, is less overwhelmingly fearsome than the process of positive, specific, munificent creation." The main point is that the Big Bang doesn't mark, necessarily, the creation of something out of nothing. If that happened at all -- and it may be, Atkins points out, that there was has never been absolutely Nothing, in a total sense -- then it probably happened further back in the pre-cosmological past. Instead, it marks the emergence of texture, differentiation, and particularity out of even, unchanging featurelessness. It's not something out of nothing, but interestingness out of boredom.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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