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Thinking Hard About Nothing

Cosmologist Rocky Kolb peers into the void.

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By Jeffrey Felshman

Back in 1917 Albert Einstein said there was a force that acted in opposition to gravity--some type of antigravity. A dozen years later he ate those words, calling the theory his greatest blunder. Now it looks like he might have been right. There is something out there in the vacuum of outer space, some kind of density or mass. As best we can tell right now, says Fermilab cosmologist Rocky Kolb, "the vacuum of space is bubbling with the creation of particles and everything we know--you, me, the stars--came from that vacuum. To put it as simply as possible, nothing is something," Kolb says. "In fact, it looks like nothing is the mother of us all. If Einstein had stuck to his guns, he'd be famous today."

On paper, Kolb is intimidating. Professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago. Author of the standard textbook on particle physics. Founder of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at Fermilab. He's been a research fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a fellow of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. He's written more than 200 scientific papers; only about 200 people in the world can understand them. While the rest of us are feeling pretty good about fixing that leak under the sink, he's formulating equations that explain the workings of the cosmos.

But in person, Edward W. Kolb is tall, affable, and energetic, with a bushy mustache and a healthy tan. He sits in his office at Fermilab wearing jeans and a T-shirt decorated with constellations. Despite the floor-to-ceiling blackboard covered with equations, his cluttered office is comfortable, homey. Photos of his wife and three children sit on the shelves, and a portrait of Giuseppe Verdi overlooks his desk. "Most scientists come in and look at that and say, 'Who is that? Is that Maxwell?' Or they name obscure physicists. And I say, 'No, it's Verdi.' 'Who?'"

At 48, Kolb is that rare thinker whose discourse is equally accessible to technicians and laypeople. He's fluent not only in math but in plain English. At the University of Chicago he teaches cosmology to nonscience majors, and for 15 years he's given public lectures to general audiences. He serves on the editorial board of the nontechnical magazine Astronomy and appeared in the Imax film Cosmic Voyage. "A cosmetic voyage for me," he recalls. "I got an allergic reaction to the makeup." His popular book Blind Watchers of the Sky: The People and Ideas That Shaped Our View of the Universe is credited to Rocky (not Edward) Kolb. As he explains in the preface, the nickname is "a constant reminder to myself that the audience for this book is not the usual target audience for whom I write." In the acknowledgments, he thanks Verdi.

For a cosmologist, Kolb is pretty down-to-earth. A smart guy but not a wise guy: ask him a stupid question and he won't give you a stupid answer. I mistakenly asked about a lecture he was giving on April 18. He ran down his list of speaking engagements: April 3, 7, 17, 27. "You know, on April 18 I have no idea where I'm going to be. If you find out would you let me know?"

On his Web site--hosted by Rocket J. Squirrel--Kolb says the best part of being a scientist is "it shuts up those irritating, chatty people on airplanes." But he doesn't mind answering questions. "I'm always impressed with the curiosity that people have about the universe. A lot of the questions they ask are exactly the questions that I'm trying to answer." As a theoretical astrophysicist at Fermilab, his job is "to write papers, write books, try to understand the experiments that are done and how they apply to the larger universe, and also to look at the universe and suggest to the experimentalists things they might do that would be useful."

When Kolb talks about "looking" at the universe, he means looking at it through numbers. "I don't work the night shift," he jokes. "I do enjoy looking at the sky at night, but not from a professional point of view. I've never actually looked through a telescope, never seriously looked through a big telescope." Telescopes are for experimentalists--Kolb is a theorist. There's a "synergy" between theorists and experimentalists, he says, with each providing information and guidance to the other. "We like to think we tell them what to do. They like to think, well, they really love--the thing that motivates experimentalists is to disprove theories. They haven't caught on yet that we can come up with theories faster than they can disprove them."

Rocky Kolb grew up in New Orleans, the elder of two boys. Neither his father, a banker, nor his mother, a homemaker, had any scientific bent. Nor is New Orleans a noted hotbed of scientific activity, though it is hot. "During the summers in New Orleans, when I was seven, eight, nine years old, there was only one air-conditioned building in my neighborhood, and that was the library." Mornings were OK for playing baseball, but the afternoons were like a supernova. "It was 100 degrees, 100 percent humidity. So I sort of worked my way around reading all the books in the library, and I liked the science books." As Kolb explains it, most experimentalists grow up taking apart radios or blowing up the high school lab, but he liked math. "I took things apart when I was a kid, too. But I could never put them back together."

Kolb married in 1972, while he was still in college, and earned his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. Then he headed for California to take a postdoctoral job. "You go to graduate school and then you become something we call a 'migrant physicist.' You go someplace for two or three years and work there, then you go someplace else for two or three years." Kolb worked for the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech, and then Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In 1983, he got an offer from Leon Lederman, then director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, to help launch its Theoretical Astrophysics Group. Lederman "wanted to expand the interests of the laboratory. See, the main purpose of the laboratory is particle physics: smashing things together at high energy. In the late 70s and early 80s it became clear that what was being learned here had applications in astrophysics, in cosmology." Lederman paired Kolb, then 32, with Michael Turner, a University of Chicago professor. "We were running around hiring people and building offices, and I always thought people would come around and say, 'Wait a minute, this has to be under adult supervision.' But it worked."

Kolb figured he'd stay at Fermilab for a couple years and then move on to someplace else. But he never moved. The group that began with Kolb and Turner has grown into a loose assembly of 12 to 15 members, including five staffers, six postdoc physicists, and shifting numbers of graduate students and visiting scientists. "For a theoretical group," says Kolb, "it's fairly large."

Aside from Fermilab, Kolb seems to spend most of his time at O'Hare. "Have transparencies, will travel," he likes to say. He's lectured on "Primordial Soup: A Little Taste of the Big Bang" (he has a transparency of a Campbell's red-and-white soup can, doctored to read "Fermilab's Primordial Soup"). He has another lecture called "Before the Big Bang," though as he explains, the "before" is meaningless. Because the universe didn't exist prior to the big bang, neither did time. There was only "imaginary time," whose existence, Kolb says, is well defined by mathematics. "But imagine imaginary time," he says. "Imaginary time is not easy to imagine." That's putting it mildly.

His latest public lecture, "Much Ado About Nothing," explores the mysterious nothingness that may have generated the physical universe (the talk takes place on April 13 at Aurora University). Recently some experimentalists have been pursuing "study of the vacuum, of empty space, of nothing. And some recent observations have suggested that space itself has a mass, has a weight to it. A density."

First, compare space to the air. "We live, luckily, on a planet with an atmosphere. If you go out, there's a certain density to the air around us. We can feel the air, the wind, and things like that. If you go to Los Angeles, you can even see and smell the air. So we're familiar with an atmosphere. But what if you had completely empty space? The vacuum of empty space? Does space itself have a structure, a density? Some recent astronomical observations have suggested that it does."

In 1929 astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that distant galaxies were drifting apart, that the universe was expanding. He also noticed that the galaxies closer to one another were drifting more slowly than galaxies that were spread out. In 1998 two teams of astronomers who'd been using electronic images of supernovas (exploding stars) to chart the expansion of the universe were shocked to see that several of these supernovas were farther out in space than they should have been, according to the calculations. Something was working against the gravitational pull.

"We can compare the expansion of the universe today to the expansion of the universe a long time ago, when these stars exploded," Kolb explains. "And what we discover is that the universe seems to be expanding faster today than it was billions of years ago, say ten billion years ago. This acceleration of the expansion, we understand, is being caused by the fact that the vacuum, or empty space, has a mass. Usually when astronomers go to a telescope and look out at some distant object, space is just some inconvenient thing that they're looking through, right? It's like the silent parts of a symphony, or the white part left on a canvas after a painting. But now astronomers are suddenly interested in the empty part."

"According to our best understanding of the nature of quantum mechanics," says Kolb, "if we look in the vacuum, in space, in nothing, then what's happening is virtual particles are popping in and out of the vacuum--particles and antiparticles. We believe that in the very early universe, about a gazillionth of a second after the bang, there was only vacuum. That there were no stars, planets, people, atoms, molecules, protons, quarks. There was only vacuum. And that somehow the vacuum changed, and from the vacuum, from empty space if you will, was extracted everything that we see in the universe. All of the energy and matter came from the vacuum.

"The idea is for people to go away from the lecture thinking about nothing. And so I put on my Zen robes and I talk about nothing. That nothing is something, nothing can change, nothing has energy. Thinking about nothing is something. A lot of students do it, but thinking about nothing is serious hard work."

Not too long ago, public lectures or teaching nonscience majors wouldn't have been part of Kolb's job. Practically every profession has its popularizers, who like to talk to common folk about what they do, and its initiates, who consider it pointless or even dangerous to promote their discipline. "Twenty years ago it was considered a waste of your time to give public lectures and communicate with the public," says Kolb. "It certainly was not considered something in your favor. It did not further your career. And it was considered something people would raise their eyebrows about. Now it's to the point where it's sort of neutral, it's not held against you. And perhaps it's slowly changing, where it's regarded as something that should be valued by our profession."

The Fermilab group is affiliated with NASA, and as Kolb points out, "One of the things they tell you at NASA is you're not going anyplace unless you take the public with you. And it's true. We're largely supported by public money and we should not view ourselves as a privileged elite who have the knowledge, and we're going to keep it in the family. . . . In the long term the more [the public] know about it, the more they appreciate it, the more money we'll get for research."

Not every astrophysicist can communicate the ideas behind modern physics and cosmology to nonscientists. Stephen Hawking, perhaps. Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, when they were alive. And Rocky Kolb. "I really like talking about things that I don't understand," he says. He's got a course coming up at the University of Chicago that he wanted to call "Questions I Don't Know The Answer To," but the school wouldn't put that in the catalog. "There are some scientists who work on areas where it would be difficult to explain the questions that they're trying to answer," he says. "Cosmology is lucky in the sense that it's easy to explain the questions." And the answers? "We don't know the answers. If we're successful and find out all the answers, then I'm out of a job."

Kolb says he's often asked why he spends so much time talking to the public about questions he can't answer. "It's just a desire to convey something that excites me and that I love so much," he says. "The other reason is that the universe doesn't just belong to the 200 people who spend their lives studying it. It's not Hawking's universe--even though there's a video called Stephen Hawking's Universe--and it's not my universe. It's not just the scientists'. It's your universe too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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