Sunday, September 9, 2012

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

     I first heard of Lawrence M. Krauss when he kicked off the "Physics of..."/"Science of..." book idea.  His contribution was Star Trek and I'm not a big Trekkie, at the time I had only seen 1.5 movies and only a few minutes of reruns way to late at night.  I didn't realize he was a serious physicists until I stumbled across his wonderful book Atom, which imagines life from the perspective of a single atom.  He's done a few other books as well, but I've had trouble finding audio versions until this one.

     This book was a really short one (4 discs, about 5 hours) to listen to and was the third book I listened to over Labor Day weekend while repainting the upstairs of my house.  The introduction is great covering the last 100 years of cosmology and physics with an emphasis on the development of the Big Bang Theory.  He told lots of stories that I was very familiar with, but a few I had never heard before.  For example, I was unaware that it was a female astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who first carefully calculated the period of Cepheid variable stars and proposed using them as standard candles to measure the distances to stars, which then helped Edwin Hubble support/prove that the Great Andromeda Spiral Nebula was actually a galaxy outside of our own Milky Way.  With that, our realization of the size of our Universe jumped from a few thousand light years across to at least millions.

     From there he explained the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and how it had been predicted by the Big Bang Theory and then was later found, on accident, and has since been studied in detail.  From there he began to focus on more modern efforts to explain origins and the focus of the book revolves around the discovery that the Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate [discovered in 1998 and winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics].  Specifically he showed how the evidence points to the Universe being formed from nothing.  He gets into theories that debate whether nothing is more stable or less stable than something.  He talks about the future evolution of the cosmos to where space will be expanding faster than the speed of light [no this doesn't violate Einstein's relativity] and so eventually we'll be so far spread out from all the other galaxies and spreading faster than their light can reach us and so they'll start to wink out and eventually it will appear that our galaxy is the only one [the idea we disproved about 100 years ago].

     He uses this evidence to suggest that we study the cosmos now because we can and someday in the very, very distance future civilization won't have that luxury.  Krauss also uses it as an attack on religion that nothing was needed for something to come about.  He gets philosophical and suggests that if our universe was created by a Creator what created the Creator [Prime Mover/First Cause argument].  From there the book closes with an afterword by Richard Dawkins, which was more harsh and anti-religious than Krauss himself.  Dawkins even goes as far as to suggest that this book could be the physics version of Darwin's On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, which is overly ambitious for this work that includes too many anecdotal stories and theories that are admittedly constrained by at worst a lack of evidence or at best in need of more support from data.  The first half of the book is great, from there it gets into theory and philosophy.   I learned from it, but I don't know that I understand all of the author's arguments or that the data fully supports his theories- parts were probably too complex for a casual listen on audiobook.

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