At the World Science Festival Thursday night, four physicists spent nearly two hours under the jocular and irreverent grilling radio broadcaster John Hockenberry, cohost of “The Takeaway,” and barely scratched the surface of the void that is the background or perhaps the platform of all our experience. They did in the end offer an answer to the question that has plagued philosophers and scientists: Why is there something rather than nothing at all?
“Nothing is unstable,” Frank Wilczek, a physicist and Nobel laureate from MIT, finally said to a general murmur of agreement of his colleagues on stage, John Barrow of Cambridge University in England, Paul Davies of Arizona State and George Ellis of the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
Given a chance, nature will make nothingness boil with activity...
But that insight, which is unlikely to put theologians out of business, is getting ahead of a story that starts with the Greeks, who were so uncomfortable with the Big Zero that they didn’t have it in their number system. Along the way, as Dr. Barrow told us in a breezy history review, Nothing got replaced by something called the Vacuum, which the physicist James Clerk Maxwell defined as what was left when you took everything else away.
And that proved to be quite a bit – the laws of physics, for example. Where do they come from? For them to guide the universe into existence out of pure old-fashioned nothingness, Dr. Davies pointed out, would require them to have “a transcendent existence.” Nobody claimed to know what that would mean.
But quantum weirdness has made the Nothing known as the vacuum even more substantial. According to the uncertainty principle, empty space is boiling with so-called virtual particles zipping in and out of existence on borrowed energy, and measurements of a small quantum suction called the Casimir effect, have validated the idea.
The problem for modern physics and cosmology is that there is both too much and too little of this vacuum energy. Sometimes it is all cosmologists talk about. Today it is known as dark energy and seems to be gently boosting the expansion of the universe, even though otherwise unassailable theoretical calculations suggest that the dark energy should be overwhelmingly greater.
Well, let's cue up the theologians and such, or at least go into details of the Dharmakaya...but first...
Dr. Wilczek compared modern physicists to a fish, who has suddenly realized that he is surrounded by water and that if he could understand what the water is, what it is made of, he could make better sense of the world.
I don't quote Dogen often on this blog, but this seems more than apt:
Now when dragons and fish see water as a palace, it is just like human beings seeing a palace. They do not think it flows. If an outsider tells them, "What you see as a palace is running water," the dragons and fish will be astonished, just as we are when we hear the words, "Mountains flow." Nevertheless, there maybe some dragons and fish who understand that the columns and pillars of palaces and pavilions are flowing water. You should reflect and consider the meaning of this. If you do not learn to be free from your superficial views, you will not be free from the body and mind of an ordinary person. Then you will not understand the land of Buddha ancestors, or even the land or the palace of ordinary people. Now human beings well know as water what is in the ocean and what is in the river, but they do not know what dragons and fish see as water and use as water. Do not foolishly suppose that what we see as water is used as water by all other beings. Do not foolishly suppose that what we see as water is used as water by all other beings. You who study with Buddhas should not be limited to human views when you are studying water. You should study how you view the water used by Buddha ancestors. You should study whether there is water or no water in the house of Buddha ancestors.