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Book Review: The Hole in the Universe: How Physicists Looked Over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything

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To continue my personal celebration of the World Year of Physics 2005, here’s a review of a personal favorite from a few years ago.



“I produced all of this from the void,
From the vacuum where fields are employed.
Mass and light as you want ’em,
Every quark and each quantum,”
The Creator declared, overjoyed.

In The Hole in the Universe, gifted Los Angeles Times science writer K. C. Cole explores the physics of nothingness in exquisite detail. In physics, and particularly in cosmology, she writes, nothing is the beginning of everything. “[T]he nothing behind the physical universe — which is, after all, the real subject of physics — is not a perfectly transparent perfection. Rather, it is shattered perfection, like shattered glass. The cracks in perfection allow it to be studied.”

Our universe, most cosmologists agree, was born in an event that has come to be known as The Big Bang. It emerged from nothing, but not just any nothing. Before the Universe — if “before” has any meaning in a timeless void — there was a special kind of nothingness called the vacuum.

That vacuum is not a blank slate. Quantum mechanics, in particular Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, does not permit absolute emptiness. Rather the vacuum seethes with quantum fluctuations. Ephemeral pairs of “virtual” particles and antiparticles flash into existence and annihilate each other so quickly that the product of the time and energy involved is less than the allowable limit.

As Ms. Cole explains, The Big Bang was one such fluctuation that somehow got stuck, a bubble of space-time, matter, and energy, a blemish on the perfect symmetry of the great nothing. “The universe, it seems, inflated suddenly, unreasonably, in a manner truly beyond imagining. . . . [I]ts size increased by a number followed by fifty zeros . . . in a fraction a a second so small that to write it you’d have to put a 1 in the numerator and a number with thirty-three zeros in the denominator.”

The best explantion physicists can offer for the much-faster-than-light expansion is that though neither matter nor energy can exceed that limit, space itself can — and did. That inflated fluctuation became a melted fragment of vacuum permeated by a single field, the forerunner of all the forces we know today. As that vacuum cooled, it crystallized into the present universe of particles and fields.

If readers find that theory less than satisfying, they are not alone, Ms. Cole explains, barely in time to keep most from floundering. Cosmologists have no generally accepted explanation of the source of inflation. Nor have they sorted out the complexities — including a multiplicity of permissible universes with different physical laws — of the eleven-dimensional string theory that seems to describe the history of this universe so well. As is often the case, cutting-edge science is ragged-edge science as well, and Ms. Cole does not shy away from exposing the process in all its disorderly glory.

Yet Ms. Cole ends with a satisfying return to order. She examines human perception and spirituality and finds surprising relationships to our scientific and mathematical understanding of the cosmos — and of the nothing that makes it all possible.

Children’s science author and Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz‘s recent books include the six-book Library of Subatomic Particles.



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