Some of you may have heard about the acrimonious exchange that occurred last year between David Albert and Lawrence Krauss. I did not write about it at that time but now there is an even more unfortunate sequel to that story. What follows is a brief summary of what happened earlier so that you can understand the recent development that I address at the end.
Lawrence Krauss had published a book called A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing where he purports to answer this age-old question. Apart from its scientific value, it is a question that some religious people think the lack of an answer proves the existence of god.
David Albert published a highly negative review of Krauss’s book where he pointed out that Krauss’s idea of ‘nothing’ is the relativistic quantum vacuum which is in fact not ‘nothing’ in the commonly understood sense of pure emptiness, but consists of relativistic quantum fields and as such is quite a dynamic place in which all sorts of things are happening all the time due to the various ways in which these fields re-arrange themselves, sometimes resulting in material particles, sometimes without. As Albert says:
The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields!”
Since these fields are not ‘nothing’ and Krauss simply assumes their existence as unproblematic and does not explain where they came from, Albert says the book does not provide the answer promised in the title.
The merits of the book are not at issue here since I have not read it. But did I read the review and, though it was sharply worded, thought it was insightful and got to the crux of the issue. But it clearly got under Krauss’s skin and one can see why. After all, the entire premise of his book had been undermined badly. In response, he gave an extremely irritable interview in which he ridiculed the whole field of philosophy as dead and that philosophers were now merely parasites feeding off science and lacked the understanding and credentials to understand modern physics. In reality, Albert is a theoretical physicist and philosopher of science of some repute and seemed to me to be a perfectly good choice as reviewer.
Now Jerry Coyne says that Neil de Grasse Tyson had invited both Krauss and Albert to be part of a panel to debate some of these issues at the American Museum of Natural History’s annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. The topic this year was “The Existence of Nothing”. But several months after Albert had accepted, he was abruptly disinvited by Tyson, with Krauss seemingly glad that Albert will not be there. Albert suspects (but cannot prove) that Tyson was acceding to Krauss’s displeasure at having to share the stage with Albert. Tyson’s stated reasons for his reversal have been suspiciously vague and his action was definitely ungracious.
Coyne says that both Krauss and Tyson come out of this looking very bad and I agree.