Thank you for your very thoughtful question! It’s a question that very few people know the answer to, and even less people understand it!
There is a scientist in the country of England who made much of his life’s work trying to investigate the answer. The scientist’s name is Professor Steven Hawking. He is famous for having the most accepted answer to: “How can the universe be created from nothing?”
Before we can answer this question, we need to understand maths and numbers because math is considered the language of science (especially for astrophysics and the studying of planets, space and our universe).
First, let’s think about the number zero. In your question, you were very clear about saying that “nothing” means no moon, no planet, no dust, no people, no air, nothing. If we think about it, nothing is "0". 0 dust, 0 people, 0 air, 0.
In math we see the number zero all the time.
2-2 = 0, right?
2-2 = “Nothing”
Imagine if we use this math in real life:
2 apples – 2 apples = 0 apples. The answer is no apples, or zero apples.
In these examples, we have only used POSITIVE numbers. A positive number is a number that is bigger than zero. A positive number can be written with a "+" symbol in front of it, or just as a number (without a symbol in front of it). So, 2 apples is the same as “positive 2 apples”, or “+2 apples”.
What about 2-3 = ?
2-3 = "-1".
“-1” is a negative number. In mathematics, a NEGATIVE number is a real number that is less than zero. A negative number can be written with a "-" symbol in front of it.
So “-1” is “negative one”. That is a number less than zero! A number less than nothing!
+1 = positive 1 (a number greater than zero)
-1 = negative 1 (a number less than zero)
In our world, a negative amount is almost impossible to imagine because on earth all the objects, places, people and ‘things’ are positive values.
Can you try to imagine Negative 1 human? -1 atom? -1 dust particle? This is not possible!
Imagine if we made a maths equation:
2 apples – 3 apples = -1 apples? Negative one apple? What’s that???
In maths it is sometimes easier to imagine negative numbers without thinking of the real-life uses of it. So, let’s just focus on the math. Here are some examples of positive and negative numbers used in equations:
2 – 3 = -1
-3 +2 = -1
4-2 = 2
-2 + 4 = 2
Do you understand everything so far?
I hope so :)
See below some examples of positive and negative numbers I have drawn if you need more help.
After that, let’s use this to explain “nothing” …
What is -1 + 1 =?
-2 + 2 = 0, Nothing!
2 – 2 = 0, nothing and
-2 + 2 = 0, nothing again!
So -2 and + 2 are equal and opposite which together, add up to 0, nothing!
Once we understand positive and negative numbers, we can then understand the science.
The reason for this, is that all the atoms that make humans, dust, particles, earth and everything else like the planets and even the light which comes from the sun is made from ‘positive energy’. We can show ‘positive energy’ as ‘positive numbers’ such as ‘+ 1’.
In our world we only feel, see, hear and touch positive energy, but the whole universe is much bigger than our world! In the whole universe, there is something called ‘negative energy’. This negative energy is something we cannot see, or feel, or experience but we do know that it exists in space.
So, what is this “negative energy”? Is it this?:
Some people talk about ‘negative energy’ as negative feelings in our body, but this is not what we define as negative energy. Negative energy in this topic is about space and gravity which are part of the topic called ‘astrophysics’.
All the positive energy in the universe and all the negative energy in the universe add up together to equal ZERO. That’s right. All the positive energy in the universe and all the negative energy in the universe together make “NOTHING”.
To understand how something can come from nothing, we must go through some examples. From your letter, it seems that your teachers have used the example of “making a hill and hole from nothing”. I will go through this again…
Imagine you want to build a hill from a flat piece of land. To make the hill, we can dig a hole in the ground, and use the dirt from the ground to make the hill. When we do this, we are creating one big hill, but also at the same time, we are creating one big hole in the flat piece of land. The hill is the same as a “positive number” or, positive amount. The hole is the same as a “negative number” or, negative amount.
The hill and the hole are equal size. Whatever we dig to make the hill is the same amount that we remove from the hole. We call the hole in the ground a “negative equivalent” of the hill that we have made. “Negative equivalent” means that it is the same size as the “positive” version. If we put the hill back into the hole, it will add up to zero because:
+1 (hill) -1 (hole) = 0 (flat piece of land, or, nothing).
Now remember, we started with a flat piece of land, which in this scenario means we started with “nothing”. From “nothing”, we created one hill and one hole. To create one hill, we also created one hole, and the hill had to be equal in size to the hole. So, in creating the hill and the hole we had:
0/nothing (a flat piece of land) = a hill (+1) and hole (-1). Let me try to show this through a drawing I made:
Creating the universe from nothing?
The ‘hill’ in the example represents “all the positive energy in the universe” and the ‘hole’ represents “all the negative energy in the universe”. To begin with, there was nothing. Then the “Big Bang” happened from “nothing”, and positive energy was made with an equal amount of negative energy.
Let’s say that all the positive energy in the world is +100. The negative energy is equal in size to the positive energy, so the negative energy must be -100. If we put them together:
0 (nothing) = +100 (all the positive energy) – 100 (all the negative energy)
I know, it isn’t the best example but this example comes from Stephen Hawking himself. He is great at astrophysics but not always easy to understand.
Advanced/Further learning: The Laws of Conservation:
Okay, if you want to learn more about how the universe comes from nothing and how the universe works, you will need to understand gravity, “the laws of conservation” and then quantum mechanics. Now we’re getting very technical.
“The law of conservation of energy”, is a rule in science that the total amount of energy remains the same in an ‘isolated system’. It suggests that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but can be change from one form to another.
In space, negative energy exists within gravity. Here is another example of how to imagine negative and positive energy. Imagine holding a ball in the air, and then dropping that ball. When we are holding the ball, we say that this ball has “zero energy”. When we let go of the ball, the ball will fall to the ground. When the ball is falling, it generates “positive energy” whilst moving down to the ground.
When we were holding the ball, there was a lot of energy in the room coming from GRAVITY. The ball had ZERO energy, but gravity from earth had, let’s say, NEGATIVE energy by pulling the ball down to earth. When we let go of the ball, the ball develops stronger and stronger positive energy from falling. Whilst the ball is gaining positive energy, the earth’s negative energy is becoming weaker and weaker. The stronger the positive energy becomes, the weaker the negative energy becomes, so that the total energy stays the same.
The big question: Understanding how something can just appear out of nothing? What causes something to come from nothing?
Okay, so we know that something can come from nothing and that everything in the universe stays balanced and equal to zero (also nothing), but we haven’t explained THE PROCESS of getting something from nothing.
Based on the "hill and the hole" example, it would seem that we need a person or 'someone' and a lot of dust to create the universe right? Remember, that was just an example to help you understand positive, negative and zero. In explaining how the universe was created from nothing, you have to imagine that there was no man, no spade, no dust, no land, NOTHING in the beginning. Completely 'nothing'. One minute there is nothing, and then... <POOF>, the big bang happens and there is something!
How does the universe just ‘pop’ into existence out of nothing? It sounds like the trick where a magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat! I can imagine you are thinking “there must have been something! How could there be “nothing?”. No dust, no air, no particles, no atoms, NOTHING, and then suddenly, SOMETHING?
It isn’t a magic trick but just like magic, learning the truth about how the trick happened is sometimes very hard to discover. If you want to learn about the process of creating the universe from nothing, and more about positive and negative energy, you will have to learn a part of science known as “QUANTUM PHYSICS”. Did you know that even Albert Einstein, who people say is one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, believed that quantum mechanics would change how we understand the universe and how it works?
In quantum physics, particles and “antiparticles” (which is an equal and opposite version of a particle) can appear and disappear by themselves! Just like that! Just like magic haha. We only say it is “magic” if we don’t understand it how it happened. At the moment, scientists are still learning about quantum physics and have not discovered the complete answer yet; but when they do, it will help explain the process of how the universe can happen from nothing.
OKAY I’ll admit, that was very complicated and difficult to understand. The important points you need to think about are:
- As far as we know from the discoveries of science, the universe can be formed from NOTHING. There does not need to be someone to make the universe and there does not need to be any dust or particles or atoms to create the universe. Everything can come from nothing.
- The big bang happened when nothing became ‘something’ and when positive energy and negative energy came from “nothing”.
- “Nothing” in the universe is not the same as “nothing” on earth. The best way to understand “nothing” in the universe is to think about the number zero.
- Everything is connected. If a ball is falling out of your hand, the ball is having an impact on the entire planet! That sounds crazy but it’s true. At the same time, the planet is having an impact on our solar system, and our solar system is having an impact on other solar systems and galaxies, and so on. Everything that exists in the universe, and everything that happens in the universe, is always in balance, and that everything adds up to “0”.
- In the same way that a hole and a hill of same size can be put together to give us “nothing”, we can go in reverse and get a hill and a hole from “nothing”
- The way the universe works is not the same as how we see everything to work on planet earth
- We need to do more questioning, researching, discovering and learning about quantum mechanics and other topics to answer the questions you have asked
You are probably also thinking “what came before EVERYTHING?” What came before nothing? How did nothing happen?
What you will find in life is that we still don’t have all the answers to all the questions we can think off. In our lifetime, not everything will be discovered or understood. When we discover more and more, we will think of more and more questions. To philosophers and scientists, this is their entire life’s work: to think of questions, then search, discover, learn and then answer… and then find new questions!
It is important to keep asking the questions, researching and discovering. You can always send us questions and we will do the best to answer them, but it is also important that you keep asking questions and doing your own research and hopefully your own discoveries one day!
Science is about learning the truth behind these questions and in the future, perhaps science will be able to answer all these questions. To do so, it will need new scientists who study hard, ask all the questions possible, and work hard to discover the answers by using new inventions and new ways of solving problems… I think you would make a great scientist and perhaps answer these questions for the entire world and perhaps one day you will teach me and the world what came before ‘nothing’ .
To really understand this topic, you should think about doing the subject “physics” at high school. You should also think about becoming an astronomer, or, learning astrophysics at university! The Magic Room and PTW will do everything we can to give you the opportunity to learn physics in high school and go to university too. I will send some more links and information to your teachers to help you learn more about this topic in the meantime.
I am sorry if this doesn’t answer your question completely but we will continue this discussion!
Yet, this is why the world needs more scientists, mathematicians, discoverers and inventors; so that we can answer these questions and we will do everything we can to help you become one of them if that is what you want to become!!! …
Or, maybe you want to become something different and that is okay too!
Thank you Harpipreet and keep on asking questions!
This article was developed by PTW volunteer Chirag Lodhia, Director of PTW.