One Thing Is Perfectly Clear: Nothingness Is Perfect

We live in an imperfect universe. This comes as news to no one.

What may surprise people, however, is that our universe exists only because of its imperfections. In fact, when people say "nothing is perfect," they are literally correct. Nothingness--and only nothingness--is perfect. Everything else is a little bit off.

Consider the early universe--a state of pure, perfect nothingness; a formless fog of undifferentiated stuff: featureless, uniform, pure.

Perfection can actually be well-defined in physics by the idea of "perfect symmetry." It means that no matter how you try to change something, it doesn't make a difference. Look left or right, on the large scale or small, move fast or slowly, turn it upside down; it doesn't make a difference.

This is the perfect nothing we hear in utter silence, or see inside a cloud. It has no signposts, no direction, no flaws--nothing at all to make any one piece of it different from the rest.

"We have, in our minds, a tendency to accept symmetry as some kind of perfection," wrote the late physicist Richard Feynman, in his "Lectures on Physics."

The closer physicists get to understanding the fundamental laws that rule the universe, the closer to perfect symmetry they come. And yet, our universe is far from this perfect state of grace: Forces are different from particles; electrons are different from quarks; gravity is different from electricity; and matter is different from antimatter.

"The reality we observe in our laboratories is only an imperfect reflection of a deeper, more beautiful reality," writes physicist Steven Weinberg. Physicists like Weinberg are in search of an ultimate theory of physics that displays "all the symmetries" of this lost perfection.

What shattered this primordial perfection?

One likely culprit is the so-called Higgs field, the subject of an international search. If it exists, the Higgs field literally took this formless perfection and froze structure into it, the way freezing imparts crystalline structure to amorphous water.

Water is perfectly symmetrical, but ice is not. Moving up is not the same as moving sideways. Freezing destroys the sameness.

Physicist Leon Lederman compares the way the Higgs operates to the biblical story of Babel. The citizens of Babel, you may remember, all spoke the same language. When they tried to build a tower up to heaven, however, God got mad and confused their speech--so they couldn't communicate with each other.

Like God, says Lederman, the Higgs differentiated the perfect sameness, confusing everyone (physicists included).

If true, this idea has wide-ranging implications. Normally, the Higgs is invoked only to explain how particles have different masses--why a quark is heavier than an electron, for example.

But the Higgs' influence (or the influence of something like it) could reach much further.

For example, something like the Higgs--if not exactly the Higgs itself--may be behind many other unexplained "broken symmetries" in the universe as well. For example, why is electricity so different from gravity? Why is our universe made of matter but not antimatter--even though the two appear to be created in precisely equal amounts? If there are really 10 dimensions of space--as popular theories suggest--why are only three large enough for us to perceive?

The Higgs, says Fermilab physicist Joe Lykken, "potentially does a lot."

In fact, something very much like the Higgs may have been behind the collapse of the symmetry that led to the Big Bang, which created the universe. When the forces first began to separate from their primordial sameness--taking on the distinct characters they have today--they released energy in the same way as water releases energy when it turns to ice. Except in this case, the freezing packed enough energy to blow up the universe.

Feynman wondered why the universe we live in was so obviously askew. "No one has any idea why," he wrote.

Perhaps, he speculated, total perfection would have been unacceptable to God. And so, just as God shattered the perfection of Babel, "God made the laws only nearly symmetrical so that we should not be jealous of his perfection."

However it happened, the moral is clear: Only when the perfection shatters can everything else be born. In the end, we owe everything to imperfection.


Cole can be reached at

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