About the Author
K. C. Cole is a science columnist for the Los Angeles Times and teaches at UCLA. The award-winning author of the international bestselling The Universe and the Teacup and First You Build a Cloud, she lives in Santa Monica, California.
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WHY NOT? A PRELUDE
Nothing is too wonderful to be true.
— Michael Faraday
There is a hole in the universe.
It is not like a hole in a wall where a mouse slips through, solid and crisp and leading from somewhere to someplace. It is rather like a hole in the heart, an amorphous and edgeless void. It is a heartfelt absence, a blank space where something is missing, a large and obvious blind spot in our understanding of the universe.
That missing something, strange to say, is a grasp of nothing itself. Understanding nothing matters, because nothing is the all important background upon which everything else happens. Without it, the universe is theater without a stage. Without getting to know it, we can't understand the blank page on which the story of everything is written. We can't trust our own perceptions because everything we see passes through it like a clear but distorting lens, like light from the sky skidding over hot pavement to create a shimmering mirage.
For centuries, scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have tried to track nothing down, give it a name, put a box around it. They've dressed it up with all kinds of decorative effects, like those daisy decals old folks in Florida stick on their sliding glass doors, the better to see the invisible, to avoid bumping their heads. But nothing continues to fool them. Wherever they go, they bump up against it.
Today, nothing is back with a vengeance, at the forefront of everything. It is the font of all creation — a hyperactive busybody that expands, explodes, spawns, wiggles, stretches, curls, twirls, pops, burrows, shakes things up, and generally interferes with everything. And yet, it remains as elusive as ever, the chameleon at the center of the cosmos.
How can such a powerful presence remain so effectively masked? And how can nothing have such profound effects?
To imagine how it might happen, consider a very ordinary kind of "nothing" — like a blank piece of paper. When you write or draw on this featureless background, you're free to create anything you like. From scratch. Ex nihilo. A perfectly featureless background like a blank piece of paper couldn't possibly affect what we draw on it. Or so we like to think.
But what if ...
The paper is bumpy so that any mark you draw on it skips and sputters from place to place, and you find that it's impossible to draw a perfectly smooth line.
Or the paper is slippery, so that your pen slides and the ink oozes off the edge.
Or the paper is curled into a cylinder, so that even a straight line circles around and meets itself from the rear.
Or the paper is black — so anything you draw on it disappears.
Or the paper is three-dimensional, like a cardboard box: suddenly you have many more possibilities for what you can create.
Or the paper is one-dimensional, like a line: your possibilities are constricted.
Or the paper has zero dimensions, or ten, and they are knotted and twisted in bizarre ways.
Or the paper wiggles and waves as you try to write on it. It won't stand still.
Or the paper has a barely perceivable background, an intricate set of images that you couldn't see until you developed the right technology.
Or the paper grows, stretches, shrinks, changes shape before your eyes.
Or the paper itself starts to draw lines and figures of its own accord.
While these scenarios may seem bizarre, they are not so different from those that have faced mathematicians and physicists in their search "for nothing at all." The properties of nothing don't always show their colors directly. That's why physicists have to do clever experiments (and thought experiments) to ferret them out.
Think of a large rock, perched on the edge of a high cliff, doing "nothing." On further inspection, you find that the nothing it's doing includes hurtling through space at enormous speeds, carried along by the spin of the earth, the orbit of the earth around the sun, the motion of the sun around the pinwheel of the galaxy.
In addition, the rock's "nothing" contains enormous potential. It's poised to act. If it falls off the cliff and crashes to the bottom, that potential will turn into enough energy to crush the skull of someone passing underneath at the wrong time.
Potential, it turns out, is one of the most impressive properties of nothing.
There are hints that nothing eludes us precisely because it is too featureless, like perfectly transparent glass. Perhaps "nothing" is perfect — too perfect to perceive. Or in Faraday's words, "too wonderful to be true." To make something from nothing, we must crack the glass, destroy the symmetry. When nothing shatters, everything can be born.
Anybody who knows all about nothing knows everything.
— physicist Leonard Susskind, Stanford University
From our earliest days, we've grown accustomed to thinking of nothing as a kind of bland absence — a convenient pause between numbers or atoms or thoughts, a passive-aggressive empty space that resembles nothing so much as a blank stare.
Nobody home. Nothing doing. Nothing on my mind.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the past few hundred years, the struggle to get a handle on nothing has changed the course of mathematics, physics, and even the study of the human mind. And while that's a fact well known to science, precious few laypeople have been let in on the secret: While no one was looking, nothing became a central player that creates number systems out of whole cloth; bubbles up matter and universes; materializes sights, sounds, perceptions. As physicists and mathematicians plunged deeper into the void, they emerged with an abundance of riches that seems to have no end in sight. Indeed, the evolution of nothing into a full-fledged player in the universe stands as one of the single greatest paradigm shifts in human thought.
As physicist James Trefil has put it, "Nothing just ain't what it used to be."
It's hard to understand how nothing got such a bad name in the first place. Ancient Greek thinkers spread the rumor that nature abhors a vacuum. There is no evidence of this, as modern physicists frequently point out. It is rather people who appear to abhor the vacuum. We are taught from childhood to shun the shadowy, dread the dark side, fill the void. People feel compelled to plug gaps in conversation, devise activities to do something (anything!) about dead (which is to say "empty") time. We describe the deranged as "not all there." We consider it shameful to think negative. No one loves a lack.
And yet, nothing may be the single most prolific idea ever to plop into the human brain.
Consider the simple naught — the zero, the goose egg, the zilch — a precocious offspring if ever there was one. Conceived as a simple placeholder to note what was not, it started misbehaving almost as soon as it appeared on the scene — confounding, confusing, creating paradoxes left and right. It grew into an unruly monster that brought instant death by multiplication, wrought absurdity through division, exploded into the cloudy ambiguity of infinity. At the same time, it opened the gates to whole new realms of numbers, including negatives, imaginaries, and infinitesimals so ephemeral they were once dismissed as "ghosts."
To close in on zero is to slide down a slippery slope, but at the bottom is an undreamed-of bounty — a cache of intellectual tools so powerful they lie behind virtually all of physics, philosophy, technology, and higher mathematics. Indeed, every number — and every conceivable number system — can be created from the humble origin of that ultimate egg. For good and for ill, the invention of zero let the genie — and also the genius — out of the bottle.
In physics, the study of nothing lies at the bottom of every burning question from the cramped quarters of subatomic spaces to the expansive realm of the cosmos at large, and especially at the ragged edges where the largest and smallest meet. All properties of matter, of forces, of space, and of time are intricately woven into the vacuum itself — that is, the ultimate nothing. Particle physicists try to melt the vacuum or to catch pieces of it in their detectors, while astronomers try to snare waves of spacetime in laser nets. Theorists would like nothing better than to understand the unexplainable lightness of nothing. When theorists calculate the energy in nothing, they come up with enormous numbers. The energy in nothing should be huge. And yet, gravity doesn't seem to know it's there. Gravity has "weighed" the ever-increasing nothingness in the universe and found it lacking.
The loveliness of mathematics and physics is that it allows us to move the search for nothing out of the realm of pure navel gazing and into an arena where concrete questions can be posed.
In a broader context, absences loom large in our attempts to understand just about anything. For example, what we don't notice tells us a great deal about how our brains perceive the world of things, people, and relationships "out there" in what we like to call the real world. We do not see the thick sustenance-giving web of blood vessels that veils our visual field; we don't feel the clothes on our backs or just about anything that isn't the central focus of our fickle attentions.
In fact, what we don't say, don't hear, don't feel, don't remember, don't ask, don't tell, in itself tells psychologists and neuroscientists more about the human mind and the tangled web of neurons and culture that creates it than perhaps any other category of evidence. We define ourselves by what we're not as much as by what we are. The physicist I.I. Rabi defined himself as an Orthodox Jew because, as he put it, that was the church he was not attending.
These ever-present absences also inform the work of historians, writers, philosophers, artists.
By chance, I shared an office at the Exploratorium in San Francisco briefly in the summer of 1999 with New York artist Fred Wilson. Fred has just won a MacArthur fellowship for his installations that reveal what museums don't show.
"What they put on view says a lot about the museum," he told me, "but what they don't put on view says more."
He created one of his first major installations at the Maryland Historical Society. Along with silver tea services, the society's exhibits included busts of "great men" on pedestals, with suitably dignified labels: Henry Clay. Andrew Jackson. Napoleon. "Most of them weren't even from Maryland," Fred said.
Conspicuously missing were figures central to Maryland's history: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Benjamin Banneker (a black mathematician who surveyed Washington, D.C., for Thomas Jefferson). So Wilson added a series of pedestals with labels, but no heads.
The absence spoke loud and clear — and far more forcefully than a presence ever could.
In the same way, playwright Samuel Beckett — a man of few words if ever there was one — prolifically employed thoughts left unspoken in his plays. Language, he said, was like a veil that obscured meaning. "[Language] must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it." His technique, he said, was to take away, "subtracting rather than adding."
Every craftsman searches for what's not there to practice his craft.
— thirteenth-century poet RUMI, Work and Emptiness
The doors to scientific breakthroughs are often just such holes in the understanding, gaps in the data. Biologists study missing links in the chain of evolution, missing branches in the family tree, missing hair, tails, chromosomes. Chemists have discovered more than one element as a gap in the periodic table. Physicists, in particular, spend a good portion of their time investigating the properties of things that can't be seen, don't matter, don't exist, or are generally AWOL.
Take the notorious case of the missing matter. Astronomers can clearly see that galaxies spin around at speeds fast enough to send the stars flying into space like water droplets off a salad spinner. Yet the galaxies somehow hold the stars together in formation — so many sparkling stellar sparrows. The only force that could glue the galaxies together is gravity. Gravity, however, comes from mass, and astronomers see only a small portion of the matter necessary to do the trick. The rest can't be found.
Or consider the missing neutrinos. Astrophysicists have a pretty good idea what makes the Sun shine — nuclear fusion. But these well-understood fusion reactions should shower Earth with untold numbers of practically nonexistent particles called neutrinos — "little neutral ones." Trouble is, only a third to a half of the predicted number of them actually seem to arrive on Earth. The rest get lost on their journey from the Sun to the scientists' detectors. Physicists think neutrinos may be cosmic shape-shifters, changing from a detectable form to another harder-to-detect species en route.
Other missing entities abound — magnetic monopoles, for example. These never-seen particles would be magnetism's counterpart to the electron — a single electric charge. The negatively charged electron can stand on its own, as can the positively charged proton. But magnets, for some reason, always come with north and south poles permanently attached. Why aren't there single north or single south poles?
The larger question is why scientists waste their time studying what can't be found when so much is right in front of their noses.
One answer is that finding the missing pieces helps to prove — or disprove — the theories that suggest these entities should exist in the first place. In the past, physicists have discovered antimatter, quarks, and even neutrinos through just such searches.
But even searches that come up empty-handed are uncannily useful. In Einstein's day, physicists were busily speculating about the properties of the luminiferous ether — the pervasive medium that everyone assumed carried waves of light like air carries waves of wind. Clever experiments revealed that the ether did not exist. Einstein's revolutionary insights on the nature of light, space, and time later explained why nature didn't require an ether at all.
And so it goes. What's not is as significant as what is. Mathematicians even study knots by exploring the spaces the knots don't occupy. These empty spaces are known in the trade as "not knots." To physicists, in fact, there's probably nothing more important than things that don't matter, don't happen. For example, the laws of nature seem constructed on a small set of properties — patterns, if you will — that never change. The total amount of electric charge is a constant, as is the total amount of energy or momentum. These "conserved quantities" are the constants in an ever-changing universe, the things that can't disappear no matter what. Every time physicists discover another thing that never changes, they create a new "conservation law" to account for it.
Indeed, the main goal of physics is to discover which properties of the universe survive every kind of alteration, stay the same no matter what you do to them. "As a physicist," said San Francisco's Thomas Humphrey, "you want to discover what doesn't matter at all."
In arithmetic as in politics, the importance of one is determined by the number of zeros behind him.
— ANONYMOUS SAYING
Part of the power and appeal of nothing springs from this obvious duality. Nothing is some thing and no thing at the same time. At times, a simple lack. At others, as rich with possibilities as a pregnant pause.
Even in elementary counting, the number zero wears dramatically different hats in different contexts. A person with zero bananas has nothing — banana-wise. Yet the difference between 10 and 10, 000, 000 (nothing but a string of identical zeros) is huge. In the number 0.001, the first zero means naught; the second turns a tenth into a hundredth.
Zero is both absolute and arbitrary. We count down to zero degrees, descend to ground zero, count backward to zero seconds before blastoff ... 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ... boom! But the countdown to the year 2000 has little absolute significance. It's just an arbitrary number some people made up.
The fact that "nothing" can be both something very real and nothing much invites all sorts of double entendres, providing endless fodder for artists, playwrights, novelists, and anyone who enjoys wordplay.
"Nobody was to blame," master math expositor Martin Gardner likes to say. "He usually is."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hole in the Universe"
Copyright © 2001 K.C. Cole.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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