A Universe from Nothing

October 3, 2017

by Alexei V. Filippenko and Jay M. Pasachoff

Insights from modern physics suggest that our wondrous universe may be the ultimate free lunch.

Adapted from The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, 1st edition, by Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko, © 2001. Reprinted with permission of Brooks/Cole, an imprint of the Wadsworth Group, a division of Thomson Learning.

In the inflationary theory, matter, antimatter, and photons were produced by the energy of the false vacuum, which was released following the phase transition. All of these particles consist of positive energy. This energy, however, is exactly balanced by the negative gravitational energy of everything pulling on everything else. In other words, the total energy of the universe is zero! It is remarkable that the universe consists of essentially nothing, but (fortunately for us) in positive and negative parts. You can easily see that gravity is associated with negative energy: If you drop a ball from rest (defined to be a state of zero energy), it gains energy of motion (kinetic energy) as it falls. But this gain is exactly balanced by a larger negative gravitational energy as it comes closer to Earth’s center, so the sum of the two energies remains zero.

The idea of a zero-energy universe, together with inflation, suggests that all one needs is just a tiny bit of energy to get the whole thing started (that is, a tiny volume of energy in which inflation can begin). The universe then experiences inflationary expansion, but without creating net energy.

What produced the energy before inflation? This is perhaps the ultimate question. As crazy as it might seem, the energy may have come out of nothing! The meaning of “nothing” is somewhat ambiguous here. It might be the vacuum in some pre-existing space and time, or it could be nothing at all – that is, all concepts of space and time were created with the universe itself.

Quantum theory, and specifically Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, provide a natural explanation for how that energy may have come out of nothing. Throughout the universe, particles and antiparticles spontaneously form and quickly annihilate each other without violating the law of energy conservation. These spontaneous births and deaths of so-called “virtual particle” pairs are known as “quantum fluctuations.” Indeed, laboratory experiments have proven that quantum fluctuations occur everywhere, all the time. Virtual particle pairs (such as electrons and positrons) directly affect the energy levels of atoms, and the predicted energy levels disagree with the experimentally measured levels unless quantum fluctuations are taken into account.

Perhaps many quantum fluctuations occurred before the birth of our universe. Most of them quickly disappeared. But one lived sufficiently long and had the right conditions for inflation to have been initiated. Thereafter, the original tiny volume inflated by an enormous factor, and our macroscopic universe was born. The original particle-antiparticle pair (or pairs) may have subsequently annihilated each other – but even if they didn’t, the violation of energy conservation would be minuscule, not large enough to be measurable.

If this admittedly speculative hypothesis is correct, then the answer to the ultimate question is that the universe is the ultimate free lunch! It came from nothing, and its total energy is zero, but it nevertheless has incredible structure and complexity. There could even be many other such universes, spatially distinct from ours.