Even something will come of nothing

The Hindu
June 3, 2014

“In the 3,000 years since the philosophers of ancient Greece first contemplated the mystery of creation, the emergence of something from nothing, the scientific method has revealed truths that they could not have imagined.” Thus writes the British physicist Frank Close in an introductory book on the idea of nothingness he wrote in 2009. It is the ontology of these truths that the book Nothing: From Absolute Zero to Cosmic Oblivion – Amazing Insights Into Nothingness explores so succinctly, drawing upon the communication skills of many of the renowned writers with NewScientist.

While at first glance the book may appear to be an anthology with no other connection between its various pieces than the narration of what lies at today’s cutting edge of scientific research, there grows a deeper sense of homogeneity toward the end as you, the reader, realize what you’ve read are stories of what drives people: a compulsion toward the known, away from the unknown, in various forms. Because we are a species hardwired to recognize nature in terms of a cause-effect chain, it can be intuited that somewhere between nothing and something lies our origin. And by extrapolating between the two, the pieces’ authors explore how humankind’s curiosity is inseparable from its existence.

So, as is customary when thinking about such things, the book begins and ends with pieces on cosmology. This is a vantage point that presents sufficient opportunity to think about both the physical and the metaphysical of nothingness, and the pieces by Marcus Chown and Stephen Battersby shows that that’s true. Both writers present the intricate circumstances of our conception and ultimate demise in language that is never intimidating, although it could easily have been, and with appreciable lucidity.

However, the best part of the book is that it dispels the notion that profound unknowns are limited to cosmology. Pieces on the placebo effect (Michael Brooks), vestigial organs (Laura Spinney) and anesthetics (Linda Geddes) reveal how scientists confront these mysteries when treating with the human body, the diminishing space for its organs, its elusive mind and the switch that throws the bulb ‘on’ inside it. What makes sick peoples’ malfunctioning bodies heal with nothing? What is the brain doing when people are ‘put under’? We’ve known about these effects since the 19th century. To this day, we’re having trouble getting a logical grip on them. Yet, in the past, today and henceforth, we will take what rough ideas of them pass for knowledge for granted.

There are other examples, too. Physicist Per Eklund writes a wonderful piece on how long it took for the world’s enterprising to defy Aristotle and discover vacuum because its existence is so far removed from ours. Jonathan Knight shows how animals that sit around and do nothing all day could actually die of starvation if they did anything more. Richard Webb awakens us to the staggering fact that modern electronics is based on the movement of holes, or locations in atoms where electrons are absent. And then, Nigel Henbest’s unraveling of the discourteous blankness of outer space leaves you feeling alone and… perhaps scared.

But relax. Matters are not so dire if only because nothingness is unique and rare, and insured against by the presence of something. At the same time, it isn’t extinct either even if places for it to exist on Earth are limited to laboratories and opinions, and even if it, unlike anything else, can be conjured out of thin air. A case in point is the titillating Casimir effect. In 1948, the Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir predicted a “new” force that could act between two metallic plates parallel to each other in a vacuum such that the distance between them was only some tens of nanometers. Pointless thought it seems, Casimir was actually working on a tip-off from Niels Bohr, and his calculations showed something.

He’d found that the plates would move closer, in an effect that has come to be named for him. What could have moved them? They would practically have been surrounded by nothingness. However, as Sherlock Holmes might have induced, Casimir thought the answer lay with the nothingness itself. He explained that the vacuum of space didn’t imply an absolute nothingness but a volume that still contained some energy, called zero-point energy, continuously experiencing fluctuations. In this arena, bring two plates close enough and at some point, the strength of fluctuations between the plates is going to be outweighed by the strength of fluctuations on the outside, pushing the plates together.

Although it wasn’t until 1958 that an experiment to test the Casimir effect was performed, and until 1996 that the attractive force was measured to within 15 per cent of the value predicted by theory, the prediction salvaged the vacuum of space from abject impotency and made it febrile. As counter-intuitive as this seems, such is what quantum mechanics makes possible, in the process setting up a curious but hopefully fruitful stage upon which, in the same vein as Paul Davies writes in the piece The Day Time Began, science and theology can meet and sort out their differences.

Because, if anything, Nothing from the writers at NewScientist is as much a spiritual exploration as it is a physical one. Each of the pieces has at its center a human who is lost, confused, looking for answers, but doesn’t yet know the questions, a situation we’re becoming increasingly familiar with as we move on from the “How” of things to the “Why”. Even if we’re not in a position to understand what exactly happened before the big bang, the promise of causality that has accompanied everything after says that the answers lie between the nothingness of then and the somethingness of now. And the more somethings we find, the more Nothing will help us understand it.

Buy the book.