The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Science May Now Have An Answer

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 3, 2010

Often people remark that science and philosophy deal with two different sets of questions.  I’ve heard many times that philosophy (or religion & theology) deal with the “why” questions whereas science deals more with the nuts-and-bolts kind of “how” questions.  But then you run into some questions which are kind of in the middle – and this is the region where philosophers of science focus much effort & ink discussing what they call the demarcation problem: where does science end & philosophy begin?

Let me give you an example of just such a fuzzy question, one which has been asked repeatedly down through the ages: why is there something rather than nothing?  Specifically, why is the universe (and us) here at all?  Why does it all exist?

Now, up until recently, many people would have looked at such a question as being beyond the realm of science, more appropriately categorized as one of philosophy, theology, or religion.  However, as science has advanced, our understanding of very fundamental physics related to the big bang is providing us clues as to the answer.  A little background first…

You see, recently there was a series of experiments conducted at the particle accelerator called the Tevatron at FermiLab just down the road from me in Batavia, IL (here’s a Chicago Tribune article on the experiments).  Specifically, what the physicists were attempting to do was to try to replicate the conditions of the early universe smashing counter-rotating beams of protons and anti-protons together at incredibly high energies (on the order of 1 TeV).  For those who don’t know, an anti-proton is the antimatter version of a proton – you see, the folks at FermiLab have an antimatter generation and storage facility.  Yeah, antimatter as in Star Trek🙂

But the trouble with antimatter is that whenever it interacts with matter, a process called annihilation occurs where all the matter & antimatter are instantly destroyed and nothing but raw, naked energy is left (in the form of high-energy photons, usually) in accordance with that most famous of physics equations – E = mc^2.  In other words, antimatter is really nasty stuff – let it come too near normal matter and “poof!” it’s gone.

So here’s where the big question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, comes in.  About 13.7 billion years ago, right after the big bang, our best theories of physics tell us that there should have been a perfect balance between matter & antimatter.  Now, for the reasons which I outlined above, if this were true then we have a problem: why didn’t all that matter/antimatter wipe itself out shortly after the big bang and lead to… well, to nothing?  Why is the universe that we see all around us, made (as far as we know) entirely out of matter, still here?  This topic is usually referred to by physicists as baryon asymmetry.

Based upon the results of the FermiLab experiments, we may now have some clues as to the answer.  The Chicago Tribune article on the experiments explains…

Simply put, the Fermi team sent protons and antiprotons around its underground Tevatron accelerator ring into a head-on collision, which produced slightly more tiny fragments called “muons” than tiny fragments called “antimuons.”

It was a laboratory victory of matter over antimatter, and a minuscule replication of what scientists believe must have happened shortly after the Big Bang, though exactly how matter won out has long confounded them.

Previous tests slamming such infinitesimal particles together — a proton is one one-hundred-thousandth the size of an atom — have produced similar results. But they never have risen above a statistical shadow of doubt for physicists working with computer calculations about particles and interactions they can’t see.

By contrast, the latest discovery by Fermilab’s DZero team seems statistically solid. If it makes it past critical peer review, it will lead to a re-evaluation of existing theories and, possibly, a deeper understanding of physics and why things exist. It certainly will inspire a barrage of additional supercollider tests, as other labs try to verify the discovery or shoot it down.

So now our modern science seems to be on the verge of lifting the veil on one of the age-old questions that our species has pondered as long as we were capable of conscious thought.  And it gets better: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is expected to conduct similar experiments but at even higher-energy levels (up to about 10 times stronger than those at FermiLab’s Tevatron), which means physicists will be able to push ever closer to the energy densities of the big bang to address even more fundamental questions.

I see this as the natural progression of these big questions: they start out in the realm of philosophy/religion/theology but gradually progress into the realm of science as both our technology & imaginations allow.  Does this mean that science will ultimately answer all of the questions that are now philosophical in nature?  I think the most honest answer is “I don’t know”, but regardless it won’t (and shouldn’t) stop us from asking questions🙂

11 Responses to “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Science May Now Have An Answer”

  1. Katharine said

    Thanks for this! I visited Mark’s space-art site, too. Are you familiar with religiousnaturalism.org?

  2. This is exciting science! I ought to think so because this was what my college thesis was about.😉

    However, when philosophers ask the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” this sort of answer won’t suffice. The results from Fermilab will point to a theory (or, at least, a law) which explains why there is net matter when we started with equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. But the laws of physics count as a “something”, philosophically speaking.

    The philosophical question is unanswerable because any possible answer would be a “something”. That is, the chain of explanations for stuff is either infinitely long or terminates in something inexplicable. Aesthetically, I kinda prefer the “terminating in something inexplicable” to the infinite regress. The infinite regress is inexplicable, too, but at least there’s less trivia if there’s termination!

  3. Ralph Edington said

    Hey there,

    Very cool article, and thanks for sharing. But I do have one objection. This is not really a discussion of why there is something rather than nothing. It’s a discussion about why there’s more matter than antimatter. If we’re worried about why equal amounts of antimatter and matter didn’t annihilate completely, we began with the assumption that there was already matter and antimatter — that there was already something. But how did the the matter and antimatter get there in the first place — never mind about why it didn’t annihilate?

    Personally I think when we know more about the universe, we will come to learn that fabric of space-time demands that there be something rather than nothing — sort of “nature abhors a vacuum” codified as an equation. Just my personal gut feeling.

  4. Danielle said

    This is all so incredible. I have come to have a fascination with physics and particle physics later in life (I am 30 so to me I feel like Ive missed the bus on being able to delve into this whole heartedly like I could have had I been interested in it as a teenager with a chance of furthering in uni with it)
    My comment is really to point out that the less matter (by 1%) gives light to a theory that comes to mind in the example of a ‘looking glass’ phenomenon. Something being on the other side of that mirror not quite the same ..or rather not the same at all as the opposing side. Very interesting indeed.

  5. Bill said

    Let’s skip particles, the big bang and forces. In a state of nothingness, there there should be no volume, i.e. length, width & height. I believe we are accustomed to thinking of infinity looking out into the vastness of the universe, but I’m convinced achieving a state of nothingness is as infinate as the expanse of COSMOS. We probably occupy the space in between — probably somewhere around zero (on the number line).

  6. Unity

    If we begin with the most fundamental assumptions, there should be some thing or there is nothing. It cannot be nothing, but we take as granted that some thing is existing.

    Also, we encounter many things in many forms around us and away. They can be can be thoughts, feelings, objects, light, sounds etc.

    We can take all those thing together and consider as one thing. This oneness again can derive in to two things as Creator and his creations. Thus creator dominates all of his creations.

  7. Creation
    There is no beginning or end to existence of creator.
    Creator generated energy in form of light, heat, magnetism, gravitation and other forms that cannot recognize by our senses.
    Creator disturbed energy levels by motion and created matter. Any radiation emits from his creation should come back to original creation. Therefore nothing can move into infinity since there is no infinity, and every thing bounded within himself (the creator).

    Creator can create as well as abolish his creations and bring back to tranquility to retain within him. Creator is the center of intelligence.

    All matters are spots of energy.

  8. R Smith said

    I’m skeptical. Were the same number of protons and anti-protons sent into collision? If FermiLab experimenters claim, yes, then how do they know that? Can they calibrate these subatomic particles so finely that they can sit there and count/divide them like white and black jelly beans?

    And are their detectors so finely calibrated that they can know with metaphysical certainty that they detected everything that occurred? What I’m asking is, what if they missed something or some antiparticles didn’t collide? You see, the assumption you make is too large, you — what’s the fudge word scientists use, oh yeah — you “approximate” too much, and that makes me skeptical.

    If you want to see a different point of view, check out: http://donnee.com/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing.htm

  9. Will said

    I would assume that matter will always just get smaller, it will never actually disappear or be “nothing”. Therefore our concept of ‘nothing’ can never exist. The building blocks of the universe is that there must be 2 sides of every coin (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). In a nutshell, the opposite of ‘something’ isn’t ‘nothing’, its ‘something else’.

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