the impact zone
the witnesses
the cause?
current seminar
soapbox archives
ask doctor jack
who is doctor jack?
guest columnists
vurdalak in the news
vurdalak at the movies
vurdalak on the tube
vurdalak on the
tunguska links
black hole links


Posted on September 11, 2004

Soapbox Seminar #8

Before the Beginning

Omnibus ex nihil ducendis sufficit unum.
(One thing is enough to bring forth everything out of nothing.)

— Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

You can observe a lot by watching.

— Yogi Berra

The universe starts out as the oldest trick in the book. You know — something for nothing. That’s nothing as in nothingness. Nothingness is the bedrock reality: no space, no time, no-thing. But it’s a strange sort of nothing, one that contains everything that is, was, or ever will be, if only you look at it the right way.

Quantum mechanics is that right way.

Quantum mechanics — it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. And the law says that, down at the subatomic level, some old familiar physical properties become what we call complementary to one another. Meaning, in order to nail one of them down tight, we’ve got to loosen our grip on the other one. Think of a toy balloon: squeeze it one place and it just pops out someplace else. It’s like there’s this minimum amount of uncertainty that we can’t ever get rid of, try how we might.

It’s called the “Uncertainty Principle.”[1] And you can forget what you’ve heard about how that uncertainty’s all just a limitation in our instruments, how they’re too blunt to measure subatomic stuff properly. Our tools aren’t the problem — we are, what with us forever trying to make two separate macrocosmic phenomena out of what’s really only one single microcosmic reality. Deep down where it counts, the universe is just plain “fuzzy,” and we may as well get used to it.

That’s for another time, though. Right now we’re just talking about complementarity. And the textbook example of complementarity is position versus momentum. How you can have one or the other but not both. How, if you clock an electron’s speed with pinpoint precision, its location smears out into a cloud of probabilities. And vice versa.

But there are other complementarities. Not so well known maybe, but even more important if, like our friend Leibniz, you wonder why there’s something and not just, well, nothing.

I’m talking about the uncertainty relationship between energy and time.

Used to be, when it came down to that short list of things you could put your total faith in, Conservation of Energy was right up there with Motherhood and Apple Pie. Not any more. Measure the energy of any system over a certain period of time, and you’ll see it doesn’t stay constant; it’s always dancing around some average value — doing a quantum jig, so to speak. And the more you narrow down the time-slice you’re measuring over, the wilder the swings can get. Make the interval really short and the energy’ll wind up all over the dancefloor. As long as it all averages out in the end, there’s no harm done.

Now, the thing of it is, this trick works even when there’s nothing there! Go far out in space, to the emptiness between the galaxies — out to where you’d think the energy level’d just have to go to zero and stay there — and what you’ll find is that quantum mechanics won’t let it! Zero would be a precise, unvarying value, after all, and we can’t have that. Instead, in the absence of anything else, the vacuum itself starts churning away, with quantum energy fluctuations pulling virtual particles and anti-particles out of nothing into momentary existence, then letting them annihilate each other again. (And don’t let that word “virtual” fool you, either. Those fluctuations are real. They have consequences — as we’ll see in a bit, when it’s time to talk about Bekenstein-Hawking radiation.)

Meanwhile, you could think of the nothingness between the stars — and the nothingness before the beginning — as sort of like a bank. You know how you can write a check for more money than you’ve got in your account, and it’s okay, provided you make up the difference before the check clears? You can “create” fifty bucks to tide you over a weekend, for instance, long as you pay it back Monday morning. Same thing here.

Except, what if Monday morning never comes? We’re talking about a time before time itself began, after all. How much of an energy overdraft might’ve slipped past the Cosmic Bank Examiner when all the clocks are stopped?

For that matter, how much energy does it actually take to get a universe up and running? There’s some reason to think the answer is: not all that much. Here’s why:

Everything in existence has got two kinds of energy: rest-mass and gravitational potential. We’ve only really known about the first kind since Einstein — it’s what you’d get if you could convert the thing’s whole mass into energy (E=mc-squared and all). But that second kind goes all the way back to Isaac Newton. It’s the energy that comes from universal gravitation, from the fact that everything in the universe is pulling on everything else.

The kind of energy, in other words, that a rock’s got when it’s sitting on top of a hill. You can’t see it in that form, of course (that’s why we call it “potential”). But let that rock come tumbling down the slope, and you’ll definitely see how that potential energy can turn into kinetic energy, energy of motion — you’ll feel it, too, if you don’t get out of its way.

Now, the way we reckon the potential energy between two objects is to multiply their masses and then divide by the distance between them. That means the further our rock is perched from the bottom of the hill (and from the center of the earth), the more potential energy it’s got. Move it way out in space before you let it fall, and it’ll have enough kinetic energy when it hits to give you a meteorite crater. So, if you could somehow move that rock out an infinite distance away from the center of the earth, you’d be giving it the most potential energy it could possibly have (can’t fall further than that).

How much energy would that be, exactly? Well, we’re dividing by distance, remember? — an infinite distance in this case. And when we divide any finite amount by infinity, we get zero. But, if zero is the maximum potential energy any two objects can have between them, then any finite separation’ll give you less than that. Meaning that all real-world gravity potentials wind up being less than zero.

Now for the main question: If all the Einsteinian rest-mass energy in the whole universe adds up to some big positive number, and the Newtonian potential energy of the whole universe works out to some big negative number, then what are the chances those two big numbers cancel each other out?

Maybe, just maybe, you could total up all the energy in the universe and it’d come out to zero (or as close as makes no never mind). The universe as a “re-expression of the vacuum,” they call it. Or, to put it in plain Texan:

It might not take a whole lot more than nothing
to make a universe.

It happens like this, maybe: Nothingness is just sitting there, minding its own business, doing (like you’d expect) nothing. Then, in the twinkling of a never-mind-how-long, things change. The auditors get caught napping, and — Bang! — before you know it, the nothing has borrowed just enough energy from nowhere to make a something — a universe seed. In all the empty annals of forever, this must’ve happened countless times. I mean countless.

What happens next depends. Andrei Linde at Stanford thinks just about all those seeds — bubbles, he calls them — go on to become full-fledged universes in their own right, each with its own spacetime, its own physics, even its own indigenous life, maybe. Me, I expect that most of those bubbles pop and sink back into the nothingness they came from, and that at most only a few get to hang around for a while. Our own universe among them.

Why should a few universes live on while all the rest die? Quantum mechanics again, maybe. Like that complementarity notion implies, it takes an act of observation to make certain physical properties “real”: an electron has neither position nor momentum until somebody decides to take a look and measure one or the other.

So far this is just an updated version of that old puzzler about a tree falling in the forest when no one’s around to hear it. But Princeton physicist John Wheeler takes it one giant step further. He says that maybe the significance of the observational role doesn’t end there at the subatomic level, that maybe a universe as a whole is a “self-exciting circuit” that isn’t viable unless, at some point in its history, it generates minds capable of perceiving and appreciating it — and in the process validating its reality.[2]

If that’s so, it’s like Yogi Berra all over again: you sure can “observe a lot by watching.”

Whatever the reason our universe has stuck around so long, you can bet it’s not esthetics. From that standpoint, nothing beats something any day: Timeless, changeless, flawless, nothingness is the height of perfection; it’s existence that represents the step down, and down ...

Even at the moment of its birth, the universe devolves in the direction of ever-increasing disorder, as its primal symmetries warp and shatter in the transition from each new phase of existence to the next.

But the greatest symmetry-breaking comes with that first, fateful phase transition from non-being to being.

copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.


— Where’s Jack going with this?


If you’ve just gotta know, sign up here, and we’ll notify you
the instant he posts the next lecture in his "Soapbox Seminar" series,


"Where do Baby Black Holes Come From?"

coming soon!


[Notes and Further Reading]

Join Our Discussion Group
Sign Up for Soapbox Seminars
Ask Doctor Jack
Contact Doctor Jack

Doctor Jack rolls out another new Soapbox Seminar every other week or so... check out the most recent one here!

current seminar

[1] The Uncertainly Principle is fundamental, more fundamental than any other rule we know about. Fundamental enough that any proposition that contradicts the UP is just plain wrong! That includes any proposition that implies we can measure a physical property to an arbitrary degree of precision. Light always moves exactly at c in a vacuum? Wrong! But the photons that go a little faster interfere with the ones that go a little slower; we measure the average. (Don’t believe it? Check out Richard Feynman’s QED, p. 89.) Same sort of self-interference causes light to move in straight lines; all the alternate paths to the left and the right cancel out. [Return to text]


[2] In the interest of completeness, I ought to point out that this whole story about how it takes a conscious observer to trigger the collapse of the wave function — to make reality real, in other words — has fallen into disfavor over the past decade or so. Nowadays, physicists are more likely to explain the fact that we don’t see quantum uncertainty in the everyday world around us in terms of a phenomenon called decoherence.

According to decoherence theory, quantum effects don’t begin to show up till a particle has been placed in a “coherent” state, isolated from its environment, kind of like the way the waves of coherent light line up crest to crest and trough to trough in a laser. That could mean it doesn’t really take a conscious mind (or a deliberate act of measurement, same thing) to break a subatomic particle out of its quantum uncertainty; all it takes is any interaction with the environment that could interfere with its coherent state — like when laser light scatters off some object to produce an incoherent jumble.

Well and good, except for a couple things.

First, even some of the leading proponents of decoherence still seem uneasy about the role of consciousness: “It’s not clear you have a right to expect the answer to all questions,” Wojciech Zurek told Scientific American back in 1997, “— at least until we develop a better understanding of how brain and mind are related.”

Second, and more to our own point, decoherence requires an environment for it to work. It’s by entangling a quantum object with its environment that the uncertainty gets dissipated (not eliminated) enough to make reality real. Problem is, at the moment of the Big Bang, there IS no environment! The Bang itself being all there is, it’s got no place to bleed off its uncertainty into and get real.

And, if that’s so, old John Wheeler just might have been right after all. [Return to text]


[Top of Page]


Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report, New York NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Richard P. Feynman, QED - The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Princeton University Press, 1988.

David Lindley, Where Does the Weirdness Go? Why Quantum Mechanics is Strange, but Not as Strange as You Think, New York NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Martin Rees, Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

John Archibald Wheeler, “Genesis and Observership,” in R. Butts and J. Hintikka, eds., Foundational Problems in the Special Sciences, Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel, 1977, pp. 3-33; reprinted in John A. Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, New York NY: Springer-Verlag, 1996, pp. 23-46.

Philip Yam, “Bringing Schroedinger’s Cat to Life,” Scientific American, June 1997, pp. 124-129.

[Top of Page]

copyright (c) 2004 by amber productions, inc.