Dennis Littrell's Reviews > The Hole in the Universe

The Hole in the Universe by K.C. Cole
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Apr 17, 10

bookshelves: physics

Cole, K.C. The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything (2001)
Nothing exposed for what it is: Something!

This is a book about "nothing" inspired by recent discoveries in physics, similar to the one written by Brit physicist John D. Barrow, The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe (2000). While Barrow devoted several chapters to the history of the concept of zero and the idea of nothing, Cole, while covering much of the same territory, emphasizes recent discoveries about the vacuum and ideas from string and loop theory while her extensive use of quotations gives her book a more journalist feel. Otherwise the books are strikingly similar, even to the typographic use of subheads in capital letters followed by epigram-like quotes from various authors that break up the text. It's almost as if the same person did the layout for both books! Both authors sometimes even use the same examples, e.g., John Cage's "musical composition" entitled, 4' 33" (four minutes and 33 seconds of pure silence). Noteworthy in Cole's book is the interesting material on silence beginning on page 211 and then some examples from the psychology of perception on pages 214-231 with an excursion into the concept of nothing from Zen Buddhism.

Cole is a science journalist who writes for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty (1998) and First You Build a Cloud: And Other Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life (1999). I enjoyed both books and reviewed the latter favorably for Amazon.com readers, and so it was with pleasant anticipation the I began reading The Hole in the Universe, hoping that I would learn more about the bizarre properties of the vacuum than I was to glean from Barrow's excellent book. What I learned was just how difficult the subject really is, and how far removed it is from our common sense notions about the world.

I would rate this book higher but sometimes Cole's ready metaphors and analogies run into each other, further obscuring an already dusky subject matter, and there are some slips. She writes on page 251, "It's easy to imagine ten dimensions of space because you can just add one on top of the other." (Not for me, at any rate, it isn't.) And there's a bad take on the anthropic principle on page 242. Cole writes. "...in a sense, our very perception determines the kind of universe we populate." It's really the other way around: we are created from the stuff of the universe and that stuff determines our perception. It's not even clear that "We perceive the only universe we can perceive" (also from page 242), because the universe could be a little different and we could still perceive it. Finally, Cole, in discussing the Higgs field, uses the simile, "the Higgs field to our universe is like water to a fish--the same everywhere and therefore utterly imperceptible." We can imagine that the fish "perceives" the water when it touches the sand at the bottom and when it leaps above the surface.

These quibbles aside, this is an exciting and stimulating book. Let me share some impressions:

First, it is apparent that there is no such thing as nothing, or I should say, nothing is something!

Second, the idea that time and space began with the big bang and that there was nothing as a matter of definition beyond the big bang can be discarded. It now seems more likely that our universe is just one of a possible infinity of universes, popping probabilistically out of the vacuum that used to be nothing but is now a bubbling caldron of potential energy.

Third, my favorite question, Why is there something rather than nothing? has an easy answer: There is something rather than nothing because there is no such thing as nothing.

Fourth, the world of string theory with its eleven dimensions and it ultra tiny strings at the scale of 10 to the minus 33 centimeters, is entirely of the stuff we will never perceive or have any ability to comprehend beyond the report of the equations.

Fifth, the old bugaboo about the universe having no beginning or being created from nothing is no longer such a quandary because, One, nothing is something; and Two, nothing has always been here. In other words, the question is answered: the universe (or mega-universe or super-universe, or whatever) had no beginning and is eternal. (God, the creator, is not going to like this, but I'm sure something can be worked out.)

Sixth, perhaps, as Cole suggests in the final chapter, a good definition of "nothing" is perfect symmetry.

Finally, I came away from reading this book with the clear sense that the universe exists indefinitely in every direction from the macro to the micro, from the distant past to the distance future. In other words, we exist not as on a darkling plain as the poet Matthew Arnold had it, but in a bubble of space and time smack in the middle of a possible infinity of bubbles, our ability to see in any one "direction" limited by our senses and our instruments, but enhanced by our ability to reason and extrapolate from evidence, but ultimately stopped cold by our imaginations and the realization of how really tiny is our arena of discernment compared to the incredible vastness gaping away from us in any and all directions. If this realization doesn't make us humble and awestruck, I don't know what will.

Incidentally, both Cole and Barrow, while carousing merrily about all sorts of whimsical notions of nothing, failed to acknowledge the "god of nothing," that is, the ineffable god of the Vedas about whom nothing can be said: "Neti, neti, neti"--not this, not this, and not this!
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