Intelligent Design Something from nothing

At Evolution News: Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel Sells “Something from Nothing”: I’m Not Buying

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Physicist Rob Sheldon writes, beginning with a reference to Siegel’s stance that quantum mechanics allows the formation of something from “nothing.”

Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains how “70-year-old quantum prediction comes true, as something is created from nothing:”

Whoever said, “You can’t get something from nothing” must never have learned quantum physics. As long as you have empty space — the ultimate in physical nothingness — simply manipulating it in the right way will inevitably cause something to emerge. Collide two particles in the abyss of empty space, and sometimes additional particle-antiparticle pairs emerge. Take a meson and try to rip the quark away from the antiquark, and a new set of particle-antiparticle pairs will get pulled out of the empty space between them. And in theory, a strong enough electromagnetic field can rip particles and antiparticles out of the vacuum itself, even without any initial particles or antiparticles at all.

Previously, it was thought that the highest particle energies of all would be needed to produce these effects: the kind only obtainable at high-energy particle physics experiments or in extreme astrophysical environments. But in early 2022, strong enough electric fields were created in a simple laboratory setup leveraging the unique properties of graphene, enabling the spontaneous creation of particle-antiparticle pairs from nothing at all. The prediction that this should be possible is 70 years old: dating back to one of the founders of quantum field theory, Julian Schwinger. The Schwinger effect is now verified, and teaches us how the Universe truly makes something from nothing.

Photo credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Dotter.

You can read the rest at Big Think. According to his bio, Siegel is a “science communicator, who professes physics and astronomy at various colleges.” He has become quite adept at blogging on physics from the “establishment position.” Part of his appeal is backing up the status quo, which in today’s world means the mainstream media, Nature editorials, and the like. And regarding the origin of the universe, the status quo position is “anything but God.” So naturally Ethan is going to offer the Lawrence Krauss gimmick of selling “a universe from nothing.”

Changes to the Dictionary

In order to push this, he has to make some pretty big changes to our normal dictionary definition of what “nothing” means, just as Krauss did and got ridiculed for it. The new item is graphene. Supposedly graphene is so marvelous that it makes particles out of electric fields. But need I point out that graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms? And the “holes” are actually displacements of carbon atoms? So we are making waves out of carbon atoms and calling this “something from nothing.” Really?

Matter and Energy

What about particle physics and mesons and all that? It is true that E = mc2, so we can make matter out of energy, and vice versa, energy from matter. We’ve done this ever since the uranium atom was split in 1939 by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, and the pieces weighed less than the uranium atom did. For the forces that hold the uranium atom together are pretty strong and therefore massive. But mind you, the fields are massive, and it is simply a trick of physics to approximate these forces and fields with subatomic particles. What you are doing is modifying potentials and calling these modifications “particles.” You aren’t making particles; you are manipulating fields.

Ethan is saying we can put those forces to work in a graphene sheet, whereas it’s a lot harder to work with uranium nuclei. True, but that is just saying, “If I make my sheet ring by hitting it with a hammer, I’m making phonons from nothing.” It isn’t nothing, it’s a sheet of graphene. If you want to call waves of atoms moving “particles,” then what you are really doing is making a press release out of nothing.

The Casimir Force

And now a comment about the Casimir force invoked by Ethan, and often taken as proof of the existence of vacuum virtual particles. When you hold two conductors close to each other, they attract with a 1/R4 attraction that Hendrik Casimir attributed to “virtual particles” appearing out of the vacuum in between the plates. 

First of all, virtual particles are just a math trick to truncate an infinite sum which describes the field. So, they are virtual in more ways than one. Secondly, there’s a perfectly valid way to describe this attraction without invoking virtual particles: random motion of electrons in one plate set up transient dipole fields that induce transient dipole fields in the other plate, so the attraction is a dipole-dipole interaction maintained by thermal instabilities. 

[A] theoretical physicist also looked for virtual particles affecting starlight. Stars (and our sun) emit correlated light, but the kiloparsecs of empty space should produce enough vacuum virtual particles to collide and decohere it. So, he looked for decoherence. Nope, not there either. So no, I think that invoking the Casimir effect is proof that Ethan doesn’t understand thermodynamics and has too great a confidence in the existence of “virtual particles.”

Full article at Evolution News.

Anyone having some familiarity with Einstein’s general relativity theory knows that what is called “empty space” is not nothing. Space is the fabric out which our universe is made; it can warp and flow and expand. Space can carry galaxies apart from one another. Any claim that empty space can create something from nothing is dubious.

9 Replies to “At Evolution News: Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel Sells “Something from Nothing”: I’m Not Buying

  1. 1
    relatd says:

    An incredibly bad article. Empty space is indeed mostly empty. There are fine particles and free-floating hydrogen atoms and not much else. The force of gravity has swept it clean.

    String theory assumes a lot. It includes the idea that particles can pop into existence but there is no science to back this up.

    Einstein’s equation E=MC2 is well known but poorly understood. And has little scientific evidence. Or “Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.” So, if a mass can be accelerated to the speed of light, it is halfway toward turning into energy. This is where Einstein had no information on which to make a faulty assumption. The best he could do was to say that a spaceship, for example, would attain infinite mass and need infinite energy to keep going. Quite wrong. As it approaches the speed of light, it would begin a matter to energy conversion. This “special state” is automatic. It cannot be demonstrated except perhaps at the single atom scale. But once observed, I believe such an observation would be kept secret.

    No. There is no such thing as something from nothing.

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    If the Casimir effect is merely due to, “random motion of electrons in one plate …”, then surely the effect must be temperature dependent. And surely someone somewhere has done the experiment to see if that is true. Does the Casimir effect disappear as the plates cool down toward absolute zero? If it is not temperature dependent, then the virtual particle theory may be the better explanation. (I assume that a vacuum has no temperature so that any virtual particle production in the vacuum could not be temperature dependent.) Perhaps Sheldon could comment?
    Nevertheless, I agree with the general intent here that Siegel is blowing the same smoke as Krauss tried to do. A vacuum with particles and fields (with or without graphene) is clearly not nothing.

  3. 3
    Belfast says:

    “As long as you have empty space — the ultimate in physical nothingness — simply manipulating it in the right way will inevitably cause something to emerge.” Siegel.
    If one speaks of “manipulating” or “capacities” or “properties” of nothing, then one is not speaking of ‘nothing’ any longer. One is speaking of “something”. Nothing has no properties to ‘manipulate’.
    Sheldon’s account of the Casimir effect is supported in numerous articles on the net like the one in Stack Exchange. “The Casimir effect and the Van der Waals force between two conducting plates are one and the same thing.
    To see this, consider the boundary conditions postulated for the Casimir effect. The electric field has to be exactly zero at the plates. Because of this, it is said, the zero point energy of the vacuum is lower in between the plates than outside, which causes the interaction. But these references to the vacuum and virtual particles are MERE HEURESTICS. [caps not in original]
    What does it mean for the electric field to be zero at the plates? The charges in the plate will have to redistribute and polarize the plate to generate a corresponding field.
    But the interactions between fluctuating polarizations are precisely the dispersion forces that are responsible for the Van der Waals interaction.
    Thus they are two explanation of the same phenomenon.”

  4. 4
    PaV says:

    We’re dealing with the vacuum here. As Caspian suggests, Einstein was forced to reach the conclusion that an ‘ether’ existed–but only for General Relativity, and not for Special Relativity, i.e., for relativistic electromagnetic phenomena.

    In the case of the vacuum, particle physicists have generated the grandest error–or conflict between theory and measurement, in the history of science: a staggering difference of 10^120!!

    So, when particle physicists start talking about the properties of the vacuum, one has to be on the alert and take everything with a grain of salt.

    In this case, the entire problem comes down to this: Siegel’s statement that “Nature can make something from nothing.” He’s careful to point out that this is not the same as saying “Nature can create something from nothing.” From the blog:

    These elementary particles include quarks, electrons, the electron’s heavier cousins (muons and taus), neutrinos, as well as all of their antimatter counterparts, plus photons, gluons, and the heavy bosons: the W+, W-, Z0, and the Higgs. If you take all of them away, however, the “empty space” that remains isn’t quite empty in many physical senses.

    For one, even in the absence of particles, quantum fields remain. Just as we cannot take the laws of physics away from the Universe, we cannot take the quantum fields that permeate the Universe away from it.

    What Siegel should have said is that “Nature makes something from nothing WHEN it is surrounded by something.” In this case, carbon atoms.

    When the statement is framed this way, it points out what, in my estimation, is one of the major problems with particle physics (that then carries over into cosmology): the ONLY way you can get the vacuum to produce an electron-positron (hole) pair using a gamma-ray (high energy photon) is if matter is nearby. My view is that the high-energy photon interacts with the weak force (perhaps in an interaction that then involve the strong force) and that this interaction between photon and nuclei release the components necessary for the electron-positron pair.

    I believe physicists make the mistake of thinking that in any point in space (that is, the ‘vacuum’), electron-positron pairs can be produced given sufficient photon energy. I think they’re wrong by a factor of 10^120!

  5. 5
    PaV says:

    By the way, for anyone interested, here’s the arXiv version of the experiment Siegel is talking about. I looked at it briefly. Too specialized for me.

  6. 6
    Red Reader says:

    What we see from Rob Sheldon is first of all a “belief” (faith) that “something” comes from “nothing”.
    Then we see Rob’s literal insanity as he asserts “something from nothing”, but in fact shows IN EVERY CASE that “something” ONLY comes from “something”.

    “Collide two particles in the abyss of empty space, and sometimes additional particle-antiparticle pairs emerge.”
    — The “two particles” are actually “something” rather than “nothing”; the “empty space” is not empty if there are two particles there.

    “Take a meson and try to rip the quark away from the antiquark, and a new set of particle-antiparticle pairs will get pulled out of the empty space between them.”
    — The meson, the quark, and the antiquark are actually “something” rather than “nothing”; the “empty space” is empty only if one arbitrarily excludes the meson, quark, and antiquark by defining the “empty space” as being “between”, not including, these particles which is a COMPLETELY arbitrary boundary in the world of quantum mechanics.

    “And…a strong enough electromagnetic field can rip particles and antiparticles out of the vacuum itself, even without any initial particles or antiparticles at all.”
    — The “strong enough electromagnetic field” is also “something” rather than “nothing”; e=mc2, i.e. energy and matter are interchangeable; do magicians really pull their cards out of thin air?

    “But in early 2022, strong enough electric fields were created in a simple laboratory setup leveraging the unique properties of graphene, enabling the spontaneous creation of particle-antiparticle pairs from nothing at all.”
    — Again, “strong enough electric fields” are “something”, “graphene” is “something”. In fact, Rob admits the fields “were created” and the “graphene” has unique properties. None of this is “nothing” but exists in “a simple laboratory” which is also not “nothing”. The “spontaneous creation of particle-antiparticle pairs from nothing at all” was neither “spontaneous” (the conditions were CREATED by the intelligence of human beings) nor did the particle-antiparticle pair “emerge from nothing at all” (strictly speaking, they emerged from the intelligently designed laboratory setup which included the “strong enough electric fields” and the “graphene”).

    “The Schwinger effect is now verified, and teaches us how the Universe truly makes something from nothing.”
    — Or in the language of math: “2+2=3 and 4+4=6, and so we have verified that 6=1,000,000! And let all the children say, ‘Hallelujah’!”

    What is this but insanity?
    The man apriori made a choice to “believe” by faith the imaginary proposition “something can come from nothing”, then willfully contorted his brain to “prove” this was so.

    This is not science; this is fantasy.

  7. 7
    relatd says:

    RR at 6,

    This underlies too much ‘science’ today. Not careful research. Not extrapolations based on known principles. And not on speculative ideas that can be tested to show their validity. That still happens, but fantasy being sold as ‘what happens,’ as in this case, is fantasy.

  8. 8
    PaV says:

    Red Reader at 6:

    I don’t follow what you’re saying. Are you confusing Rob Sheldon with Ethan Siegel?

  9. 9
    relatd says:

    “We’ve done this ever since the uranium atom was split in 1939 by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, and the pieces weighed less than the uranium atom did.”

    An error.

    “Two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, were the first to officially acknowledge this process in 1938 when they successfully split uranium atoms into two or more parts.” This is when the Germans realized that the energy released from splitting Uranium could be developed into a powerful explosive.

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