”Not everything that can be counted counts,

 And not everything that counts can be counted.”

Albert Einstein

 ”Anybody who knows all about

nothing knows everything.”

Leonard Susskind

“Nothing is real.”

The Beatles

“Nothing is but what is not.”

William Shakespeare

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true.”

Michael Faraday

“A witty saying proves nothing.”


“Nothing really matters.”

Queen Victoria

“Among the great things

which are found among us

 the existence of Nothing is the greatest.”

Leonardo da Vinci



 Why does it matter what lies between matter?

by: Scott Laee

This is a story about nothing in general.

and, nothing in particular.

It is a tale that spans the vacuum of interstellar space and the empty places between molecules atoms and the subatomic particles that make them both.

The idea of nothing is as old as human thought, yet it confounds like nothing else. We have dozens of words for the concept — nil, none, null, naught among them — but nothing we can hang a hat on.

“Nothingness is a conceptual monstrosity,” said the late Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. “It is a purely thought-thing which cannot be pointed to in experience. And that, perhaps, is what makes thinking about nothing so maddening. It lacks attributes. Nothing is devoid of any quality that might make it something. “It is almost impossible to think about nothing without giving it all sorts of properties. And then, of course, it isn’t nothing anymore.” wrote K. C. Cole in “A Hole in the Universe.”

So, why should we care about something that isn’t?

Well, for one thing, everything arose from nothing. Before there was a universe, there was no time, space, matter or energy. Nothing existed but nothing. Then the Big Bang happened — a sudden, inexplicable expansion of space that carried matter and energy along with it

We are still on that ride.

The notion of nothing is crucial because it speaks just as loudly as something, some

times more so. In science and in life, absence is as defining as presence. Darkness defines the day as much as light Swiss cheese and doughnuts would not be what they are if not for their holes. The number one is simply one, but follow it with a few zeroes — the numerical equivalent of nothing — and it becomes a considerable sum. Asentencewithoutspacesbetweenthewordsismeaningless.

“ We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds what we want,” observed the Chinese philosopher Lao-tsu, founder of Taoism. “Nothingness haunts being,” concurred Jean-Paul Sartre in “Being and Nothingness” some 27 centuries later. The meaning of nothingness is a persistent philosophical conundrum, but it is also a matter of intense, if somewhat unrequited, scientific inquiry on both the largest and smallest of scales.

More than 99 percent of atoms are empty space. The vast majority of the universe appears to consist of something best described as nothing. It is space containing absolutely no recognizable matter nothing solid, liquid or gas. Yet numerous astronomical studies indicate that something is out there, something unseen that exerts force and influence on a cosmic and quantum scale, binding both atoms and galaxies together.

For the last two years, NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) has been orbiting in deep space, a million miles from Earth, looking at the oldest light in the universe, the cosmic remnants of the Big Bang. There is more there than meets the eye, and WMAP’s findings, just released, may be the best clues yet about the nature of nothingness.

Specifically, the universe, according to WMAP researchers, seems to consist of just three ingredients: 4 percent ordinary atoms, 23 percent “dark matter” and 73 per-cent “dark energy..”

But don’t ask physicists to explain more. They can’t

When it comes to dark matter and dark energy, they’re in the dark, too. There isn’t enough visible, detectable matter in the universe to account for its total estimated mass. Ninety-six percent of what makes up the known universe remains unknown.

“Nobody has the slightest clue what it is,” said Kim Griest, an astrophysicist at UCSD. Yet this is arguably the stuff of nothingness, and finding an explanation for it could explain everything

Nothing’s doings

Contrary to the old saw, nature does not abhor a vacuum because, frankly, there is no such thing. True emptiness — a void completely devoid — is fundamentally impossible. Even in the emptiest regions of space, said Griest, “there are always going to be a few atoms hanging around. And even if there weren’t, there would still be other forces present photons (particles of light), various forms of radiation, gravity.”

You could, of course, try to create your own region of truly empty space, said Henning Genz, a theoretical physicist at the University of Karlsruhe, Germany in “Nothingness.” You would need to build a container from which you could not only extract all matter, but also all radiation, detected or not But such a box is not possible to build. Even with extraordinary shielding materials to block out incoming radiation and a special pump to suck away everything inside, the enclosed

closed space would not be completely empty. It would not define nothingness.

For one thing, a vacuum has form and structure; nothingness does not Second, the vacuum’s walls emit radiation, said Genz. And the emptied space between them would also contain thermal radiation or heat energy. To eradicate all heat would mean reducing the temperature inside the vacuum box to absolute zero degrees Kelvin (which translates to minus 273 degrees Celsius or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) This is not possible either. Even in the farthest reaches of the known universe, heat lingers from the Big Bang, a cosmic background radiation that averages 2.735 degrees K (minus 270.425 degrees C; minus 454.747 degrees F). As a result, the working definition of nothingness more practically describes space existing at the lowest possible state of energy. But even in this state, nothingness is a lively place. It throbs with real and theoretical energies and unseen virtual particles that constantly blink into existence, then disappear back into pure, invisible energy.

“Virtual particles don’t have enough permanent energy to be real. Their energy is borrowed,” said Griest. “Empty space is full of this kind of stuff. But it happens on a scale so minute as to be invisible. A vacuum is a boiling cauldron on a tiny scale.”

It gets weirder, thanks to the rules of physics that govern the world of the very small. Things happen in the microcosmos that are strange, counterintuitive and often inscrutable.

“All of modern physics is governed by that magnificent and thoroughly confusing discipline called quantum mechanics,” said physicist and Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann. “It has survived all tests and there is no reason to believe that there is any flaw in it. We all know how to use it and how to apply it to problems; and so we have learned to live with the fact that nobody can understand it” One of the precepts of quantum mechanics is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. which states that it is impossible to precisely plot both the position and velocity of a particle simultaneously. At any instant, the electron itself cannot know both where it is and where it is going. Or as Heisenberg put it “We cannot know the present in all its details.”

As a result, nothingness possesses a disquieting duality. Particles can be waves; waves can be particles. Particles are matched by antiparticles, their opposing properties canceling each other out and thus preserving, on the whole, the energy balance of the universe. On a large scale, say that of life or the motion of planets,

nothingness equates with zero energy. On the level of the sub-atomic, however, the energy present is very large because the space is very small. Here, zero equals infinity.

“At a basic level, the theories of general relativity (Einstein’s ideas about the physical laws governing matter, space, time and motion) and quantum mechanics are incompatible,” Griest said with a shrug. Thus empty space is vexatiously awash with energy fields, if you look hard enough. There are obvious suspects: the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to visible light to gamma rays, and odder culprits like the Higgs field.

The Higgs field is comprised of Higgs bosons — hypothesized particles that fill all of space with a constant energy. In important respects, the Higgs field is indisting-uishable from empty space. It is the interaction between the Higgs field and regular particles traveling through it that gives particles like electrons their mass — the measurement of the quantity of matter contained by a body.

With their qualifies of mass and ubiquity, Higgs bosons profoundly affect the nature of space. One analogy, said Griest, is a hand moving through water. The Higgs field is like water, acting to slow the moving hand hy its simple presence. “If it wasn’t for the Higgs field,” said Griest, “ordinary particles would move at the

speed of light.” This would be a bad thing. “If everything moved at the speed of light, nothing would ever clump or coalesce. All particles would be moving away from one another. There would be no galaxies, no humans, no question.”

The presence of Higgs bosons neatly fills gaps in the Standard Model, physics’ working framework for explaining the behavior of all subatomic particles. But problems remain. For one thing, Higgs bosons have yet to be seen. More prob- lematic, the amount of energy in the Higgs field should, in theory, be much greater than what has been actually measured.

Dark thoughts

Physicists know there is something to nothing because the universe is expanding. And it’s doing so faster now than in the past

Until relatively recently, many cosmologists argued that the tug of gravity from all of the matter contained in the cosmos, seen or not, was gradually slowing the expansion of the universe. There were theories that eventually the expansion would stop altogether, reverse and result in the so-called Big Crunch.

But in 1998, researchers reported that distant supernovas -- exploded stars — appeared dimmer than expected. They were farther away than standard theory would have predicted. Somehow, cosmic expansion was speeding up, not

 slowing down.

This discovery contradicts common sense. Over time and space, things usually slow down. A ball tossed in the air inevitably loses momentum, then returns to Earth. For universal expansion to be accelerating, physicists say, something must be fueling the rush outward, something strong enough to overcome the inward tug of cosmic gravity.

The culprit is not likely to be dark matter, whose unseen presence generates massive but understandable gravitational influences upon its surroundings. Dark energy is another matter, so to speak. It is a repulsive force. If gravity normally pulls matter together, dark energy seems to push matter apart. In- stead of slowing the expansion of the universe, dark energy increases it.

Theory suggests that such a repulsive energy should exist in a vacuum. Indeed, something called “vacuum energy” permeates every fiber of the universe, said English physicist John D. Barrow. It has a measurable presence. The dilemma is that vacuum energy, like the Higgs field, seems to exist at inexplicably high levels, orders of magnitude larger than the levels of dark energy cosmologists posit for the universe as a whole.

 “If the vacuum energy density really is so enormous, it would cause an exponentially rapid expansion of the universe that would rip apart all the electro- trostatic and nuclear bonds that hold atoms and molecules together,” said University of Pennsylvania physicist Paul J. Steinhardt. ‘There would be no galaxies, stars or life.”

But of course there is, so maybe the problem is with the measurements. The Standard Model, as good as it is, does not incorporate the quantum effects of gravity. Over the centuries, the essential meaning and definition of absolute emptiness has grown, splintered, morphed in countless ways. As physicists, cosmologists and others plumb the depths of space, inner and outer, they will continue to revise, create and void their ideas about the importance of emptiness.

If there is one given, it’s that nothing will change — again and again.(and again)

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