The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe - John D. Barrow (2002)


“Deciding on a book’s beginning is as complex as determining the origins of the universe.”

Robert McCrum

‘Because it’s not there’ might be reason enough to write a book about Nothing, especially if the author has already written one about Everything. But, fortunately, there are better reasons than that. If one looks at the special problems that were the mainsprings of progress along the oldest and most persistent lines of human inquiry, then one finds Nothing, suitably disguised as something, never far from the centre of things.

Nothing, in its various guises, has been a subject of enduring fascination for millennia. Philosophers struggled to grasp it, while mystics dreamed they could imagine it; scientists strove to create it; astronomers searched in vain to locate it; logicians were repelled by it, yet theologians yearned to conjure everything from it; and mathematicians succeeded. Meanwhile, writers and jesters were happy to stir up as much ado about Nothing as ever they possibly could. Along all these pathways to the truth Nothing has emerged as an unexpectedly pivotal something, upon which so many of our central questions are delicately poised.

Here, we are going to draw together some of the ways in which our conceptions of Nothing influenced the growth of knowledge. We will see how the ancient Western addiction to logic and analytic philosophy prevented progress towards a fruitful picture of Nothing as something that could be part of an explanation for the things that are seen. By contrast, Eastern philosophies provided habits of thought in which the idea of Nothing-as-something was simple to grasp and not only negative in its ramifications. From this first simple step, there followed a giant leap for mankind: the development of universal counting systems that could evolve onwards and upwards to the esoteric realms of modern mathematics.

In science, we will see something of the quest to make a real vacuum, in the midst of a thousand years of tortuous argument about its possibility, desirability and place. These ideas shaped the future direction of many parts of physics and engineering while, at the same time, realigning the philosophical and theological debates about the possibility and desirability of the vacuum – the physical Nothing. For the theologians, these debates were, in part, the continuation of a crucial argument about the need for the Universe to have been created out of both a physical and a spiritual Nothing. But for the critical philosophers, they were merely particular examples of ill-posed questions about the ultimate nature of things that were gradually falling into disrepute.

At first, such questions about the meaning of Nothing seemed hard, then they appeared unanswerable, and then they appeared meaningless: questions about Nothing weren’t questions about anything. Yet, for the scientists, producing a vacuum appeared to be a physical possibility. You could experiment with the vacuum and use it to make machines: an acid test of its reality. Soon this vacuum seemed unacceptable. A picture emerged of a Universe filled with a ubiquitous ethereal fluid. There was no empty space. Everything moved through it; everything felt it. It was the sea in which all things swam, ensuring that no nook or cranny of the Universe could ever be empty.

This spooky ether was persistent. It took an Einstein to remove it from the Universe. But what remained when everything that could be removed was removed was more than he expected. The combined insights of relativity and the quantum have opened up striking new possibilities that have presented us with the greatest unsolved problems of modern astronomy. Gradually, over the last twenty years, the vacuum has turned out to be more unusual, more fluid, less empty, and less intangible than even Einstein could have imagined. Its presence is felt on the very smallest and largest dimensions over which the forces of Nature act. Only when the vacuum’s subtle quantum influence was discovered could we see how the diverse forces of Nature might unite in the seething microworld inhabited by the most elementary parts of matter.

The astronomical world is no less subservient to the properties of the vacuum. Modern cosmology has built its central picture of the Universe’s past, present and future on the vacuum’s extraordinary properties. Only time will tell whether this construction is built on shifting sand. But we may not have to wait very long. A series of remarkable astronomical observations now seem to be revealing the cosmic vacuum by its effects on the expansion of the Universe. We look to other experiments to tell us whether, as we suspect, the vacuum performed some energetic gymnastics nearly fifteen billion years ago, setting the Universe upon the special course that led it to be what it is today and what it will eventually become.

I hope that this story will convince you that there is a good deal more to Nothing than meets the eye. A right conception of its nature, its properties, and its propensity to change, both suddenly and slowly, is essential if we are to understand how we got to be here and came to think as we do.

The glyphs accompanying the chapter numbers throughout this book, from zero to nine, are reproductions of the beautiful Mayan headvariant numerals. They represent a spectrum of celebrated gods and goddesses and were widely used by the Mayans more than fifteen hundred years ago for recording dates and spans of time.

I would like to thank Rachel Bean, Malcolm Boshier, Mariusz Dbrowski, Owen Gingerich, Jörg Hensgen, Martin Hillman, Ed Hinds, Subhash Kak, Andrei Linde, Robert Logan, João Magueijo, Martin Rees, Paul Samet, Paul Shellard, Will Sulkin, Max Tegmark and Alex Vilenkin for their help and discussions at various times. This book is dedicated to the memory of Dennis Sciama without whose early guidance neither this, nor any of my other writing over the last twenty-five years, would have been possible.

This book has survived one move of house and three moves of office in the course of its writing. In the face of all these changes of vacuum state, I would also like to thank my wife Elizabeth for ensuring that something invariably prevailed over nothing, and our children, David, Roger and Louise, for their unfailing scepticism about the whole project.

J.D.B., Cambridge, May 2000