The idea has shifted from a philosophical concept to a fragile piece of real estate, says cosmologist.
Ultimately, we must understand the universe and use science and reality as policy guides or "we're screwed", says cosmologist Lawrence Krauss.
Lawrence Krauss has been doing battle on two fronts. His latest book, a new primer on the origins of the universe, has been published to big-bang-scale fanfare.
In just 190 pages, the celebrated cosmologist pushes science into territory claimed by faith and philosophy, and suggests, on the back of some high-level argument, that our universe arose from "nothing". (Actually it's a special kind of "nothing").
As a sideline, he's been half of an atheist tag team across the Tasman. His bodywrestling partner in attacking the citadels of religion was the superstar rationalist Richard Dawkins. The pair had star billing at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, and a series of lectures they did on the road attracted thousands to hear them give science a hand.
Next month, Krauss, an American, will be in Auckland for the Writers and Readers Festival.
For the moment, he senses that the real heavy-lifting is needed in his own country, where Tennessee has become the new frontier in the advance of faith over science. The state has a new law on its books protecting teachers who criticise evolution, as well as global warming and other science orthodoxies.
Krauss' approach to his enemies is to mix science with sense of waspish humour. A taste: During a hearing in Texas, where Krauss was fighting to keep evolution being taught in schools, a woman got up and said: "My grandfather wasn't a monkey." Krauss replied: "In your case it's not so clear."
Cruel humour aside, Krauss says he constantly finds that science rattles people's faith.
"The point is that science is indeed incompatible with literal doctrines of the three major world religions," he tells the Herald from Sydney. One problem, he says, is that "science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God.
"If you would rather close your eyes to the way the world really works in order to preserve your faith, or ensure that your kids aren't properly educated for fear that they will lose faith, then there is a real problem."
He is optimistic about his work which, when he sits still, finds him in Arizona directing what is called the Origins Project, an ambitious programme which gets down to the nitty-gritty of life. "Science can turn things around by educating people about how remarkable the universe really is, so people won't have to have recourse to myth and superstition ... that is one of the reasons I write books."
His new book - A Universe from Nothing - tackles the rather large question of how the universe got kick-started. In his view, the idea of "nothing" has shifted, under the relentless scrutiny of modern science, from a philosophical concept to a fragile piece of real estate. His basic premise is that the giant strides in particle physics - his field - and cosmology over the past 30 to 40 years allow for a plausible case that a universe full of stars and galaxies and space could spring from "nothing" by natural and measurable processes.
Applying the highbrow ideas of quantum theory, he describes an empty space pulsating with energy, and shaking with electromagnetic fields and what he calls "virtual particles" which bob in and out of existence. It is not always easy, he concedes, to get your head around his big ideas. It isn't helped that the timescales involved are simply immense and human lives in the scheme of things so brief.
So, persevere, is the message. Beyond this kind of nothingness there's another place where neither space nor time exist. In this particular stopover, Krauss suggests whole universes could spring into existence, like bubbles in boiling water.
By asserting that the whole show got off the ground without any help from a creator, Krauss has encountered a bit of celestial fire.
In The New York Times last month, Columbia University philosophy professor David Albert took issue with both the science and Krauss' challenge to religious belief as "some kind of battle of wits". Krauss responds: "I was shocked at the review, frankly, because, as I indicated, it really didn't look like he had read the book.
"Whatever axe he wanted to grind, it missed the point that I am not just talking about virtual particles in space, I am talking about the creation of space itself and that, moreover, if physicists have changed the meaning of nothing compared to what philosophers wanted, that won't be the first time ... it just points out the sterility of philosophy compared to science."
Ultimately, his priority is to understand the universe and use science and reality as policy guides. If we don't "we're screwed".
Lawrence Krauss is appearing at the Writers and Readers Festival. For details see www.writersfestival.co.nzBy Andrew Stone Email Andrew