Something from Nothing

In response to:

The Origin of the Universe from the February 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I read avidly Victor Weisskopf’s explanation of the origin of the universe [NYR, February 16], thinking that at last I would find the answer. But what it comes down to is that once upon a time there was a true vacuum everywhere (which in fact was nowhere), and a little fluctuation “within” it started off the Big Bang and everything that has followed. But if a true vacuum is absolutely nothing, what is it that can possibly fluctuate? I feel I am back to square one.

Ann Morrissett Davidon
Ardmore, Pennsylvania

Victor Weisskopf replies:

Not only the letter published above but others sent to me directly have raised the following question in regard to my article on the origin of the universe: “How can energy fluctuations occur in a true vacuum that is supposed to be free of energy and matter?” I said in the article that according to the fundamental tenets of quantum mechanics, there is nothing in nature that remains totally quiet and is not subject to certain fluctuations. I did not explain this because it would have been difficult to do so in ordinary language. Perhaps I should have tried to do so. No doubt the statement I made, if applied to the true vacuum, contradicts the idea of total emptiness. In this sense the common concept of a vacuum is not valid. The recognition of fundamental fluctuations in empty space is one of the great achievements of quantum mechanics. In some special cases the existence of such fluctuations has been established by experiment. And that is the basis of the idea that indeed something can come out of nothing.