Does nothing exist?
Musings by: Bec Johnson – march 2014
What does nothing look like? Close your eyes and put your hands in front of them. That is pretty much what nothing looks like. Can you think about nothing? I mean really nothing. Empty your mind like a mountain yogi and truly block out all of the millions of little thoughts that flit through your mind every minute of the day. Can you imagine what was here before the Big Bang? Does nothing even exist?
Creation myths often address the problem of the existence of nothing. In the Sanskrit text written 3,700 years ago, the Rigveda it names the nothing Sunyata and says of it:
“There was neither non-existence nor existence then. There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.” Rigveda 10.129
This concept of Sunyata is still embraced today in Buddhist practice where the ability to meditate on nothing and experience the void is seen as a path to enlightenment.
The Ancient Hebrews called it the Tohru wa Bohoo. It was spoken of in Genesis: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Genesis 1:2
The Greeks especially did not like the idea of nothing. Thales categorically stated that “nothing can come from nothing; does not thinking about nothing make it something?” Parmenides said, “To speak of a thing, one has to speak of a thing that exists.” Aristotle was particularly adamant that nothing does not exist; “Nature abhors a vacuum” was the aphorism, he cried. As much as we students of rhetoric like to place these noble Greeks on pedestals, the Italians unquestionably proved them wrong. And science continued to prove them wrong time and time again, finding ever-unique ways to describe, catalogue, and define…nothing.
In 1589, Galileo Galilei climbed the tower of Pisa to drop a feather and a stone off the upper most balcony to prove that all objects fall at the same rate despite 2,000 of western Aristotelian beliefs that heavier objects fall faster. Well that’s the urban legend in anycase. He did not perform this experiment, because he knew that the resistance of the air would carry the feather aloft and disprove his own hypothesis. He needed something else, he needed a vacuum, he needed nothing. Nearly four hundred years later, the Apollo 10 astronauts carried out this experiment on the moon. They used a hammer and a falcon feather; indeed, when released, both touched the powdery surface of the moon at the same time, proving the existence of a vacuum.
Torricelli, a student of Galileo, had already shown us a vacuum in 1646. Torricelli filled a glass vial with mercury, placed his thumb over the open end, then inverted it into a bath of more mercury. At this point, some mercury was drawn out into the tub (proving a host of other things such as air pressure, density and flow rates), but what was left at the closed end of the glass vial after mercury was drawn out was a vacuum. (Science 1, Aristotle 0).
Over the four hundred years since Galileo and Torricelli affirmed the existence of nothing by way of a vacuum, science has become ever more sophisticated. The Greeks proposed the existence of the atom, but major understandings of them did not happen until the dawn of the 20th century, most notably by scientists such as Rutherford and Bohr. When we finally were able to understand the structure of atoms, we found that an electron is only 1 / 2000th of the mass of a typical atom, with apparently nothing in between the electrons and the nucleus. Atoms are just 99.999999% empty space. The vast majority of all matter is composed of nothing! Nothing just took a major leap up the importance scale. If you took out all of the space in atoms, you could fit the entire human population into a cube of sugar.
To help visualize this further, if you expand a hydrogen atom to be the size of the Earth (12,000km diameter), the nucleus of the atom would be 192 meters diameter (about 2/3rds the size of the TFDL at the University of Calgary. Picture the library buried 6,000km below us representing the nucleus of an atom, then picture a 9cm long rubber ducky sitting on the surface of the ocean representing an electron.
That is a lot of nothing. Science needed to see even smaller than a nucleus and an electron. Let’s go back to the TFDL analogy. Zoom down to our nucleus and expand one single proton to be the size of the library, then walk inside to see what is going on inside the library/proton. Imagine clouds of busy bees buzzing all through the library representing quarks, filling up the space! However, I need you to take this thought experiment a little further. Each bee or quark is moving and vibrating therefore requiring a space to move through or vibrate into. Is this medium the real nothing? Have we found it resting in between the quarks?
Now things get weird. Quarks interact based on their colour, it’s like a vibrating rainbow in there. There are six different types of quark colours, and these are called flavours. And what medium are the flavours moving through to interact exactly? At this point, physics has not only fallen down the rabbit hole smashing every looking glass on the way, opening up new dimensions to burst through, and currently the best explanation we have is…string
Leaving the bizarre math of string theory aside for a moment let us look at the 2011 the Nobel Prize for physics. It was awarded to three scientists — Perlmutter and Riess of the USA and Schmidt of Australia — who proved that the universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate. By marrying Einstein’s’ general relativity and a something called “quantum vacuum energy”, they were able to prove that 74% of the universe consists of a thing called dark energy; and it’s more powerful than Newton’s apple loving gravity. They took this theoretical math and developed empirical experiments using observations on how light stretches from a supernova or exploding star and produced strong evidence that our universe is expanding faster and faster all the time – a mysterious dark energy expanding and pushing galaxies apart and an ever-increasing rate.
Thus, “nothing” does exist; we can measure it, and it acts in a very strong way on the universe around us, essentially creating the universe around us and allowing us the stars and planets and therefore us to exist. In July of 2012, the Higgs Boson particle was confirmed at CERN, providing a field from which this dark energy could emerge. What comes out of the Large Hadron Collider over the next decades will undoubtedly continue to cyclically confirm and deny the existence of nothing.
Whilst waiting for the latest updates from CERN, let us step aside from particle physics back into the cognitive realm of cosmology. We know the universe is expanding, but what exactly is the universe expanding into? What is outside the universe and what was here the day before the big bang? Was there something outside of the universe that gave seed to this whole bunch of “something”? This question invokes the ontological argument of First Cause, a anathema to science and a prime target for logical disproof, necessitating a vacuous nothing in which this universe or universes must reside. One of our cleverest rabbit hole technicians, Richard Gott, Professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton, has created some elegant yet “stringy” math that eradicates the need for a first-cause principle. Using a math that permits regressive time travel, he is able to postulate a self-creating universe, thus allowing our universe or all universes to self-seed.
Outside of this is possibly nothing. Take yourself there. Now we are floating, completely detached in a sea of pure abstract. Can you close your eyes and visualize it now? Or when you do you see a giant, gyrating trumpet like structure of self-creating universes on your horizon?
Even Gott and his contemporaries, such as Eva Silverstein, theoretical physicist at Stanford University, concede that in this nothing there is a topographical geometry, something from which space-time can arise. That is at least something. Once again, nothing slips quietly through our fingers the moment we grasp it.
Would exploring the realm of pure concept of numbers enable us to finally get a grip on nothing? Consider Zero a number that the ancient Greeks barely acknowledged existed it repulsed them so much. They borrowed it from the Babylonians when they needed to make more complex astronomical calculations; then, they would quickly give it back, washing their hands of the stench of nothingness. The Romans, who took so much from the Greeks, did not even have a way to express zero in Roman numerals. Zero did not make a formal appearance in Europe until Fibonacci adopted it in 1202, and, even then, it did not become common among business folk until the 16th century. In our humble little zero, can we find nothing? The ultimate expression of the absence of something? I’m afraid not.
Zero holds the auspicious titles of, non-negative integer, natural number, rational number, real number, algebraic number, and complex number. It also has the more colloquial labels of naught and nil. And, of course, it has its pictographical representations, both with and without the diagonal slash. It shivers at the lowest Kelvin temperature of absolute zero, and, in Celsius, it is the freezing point of water. To a computer, it is half of Everything, being that binary code consists of only one’s and zero’s. Zero is as far from nothing as the vibrating rainbows inside our quarks.
Let’s try out some linguistics, something at which rhetoricians are adept: something familiar and comforting. Syllogistic logic. Assumption: Nothing does exist.
- By the fact that we are thinking this, something exists; however big or small that something is, it is something.
- All that exists contains by definition everything that exists.
- If nothing does exist, then it must be contained within all that exists and therefore nothing does exist.
Well that’s that then. We may as well all go sit in a dark coffee shop, smoke some strong cigarettes, and despair in French tones how there’s really not much point to anything: “Nothingness haunts being”, wailed Satre (1943).
I have now given you an extraordinarily brief synopsis on nothing, showing how the very cleverest rabbit hole technicians on the planet can paradoxically and simultaneously prove both the existence and non-existence of nothing. Logical. Precise. Scientific.
Aristotle is dead, and now I feel a step closer to that emptiness.
That quite nagging deep inside that you have tried to ignore your whole life, the one that whispers to you in the dark when you are most alone that from nothing you came and to nothing you will return. And if nothing comes from nothing, as so eloquently proved by Paramenides, then you are by default, nothing. When you die, will you dissipate into a bleak existentialist absence of anything? What if we are alone and nothing matters, not even nothing itself? Has this fear been given new life by my logical discourse thus far as I have rattled at your most fundamental and foundational beliefs? When faced with the apparently irrefutable proof of the existence of nothing, do you wish to spit out the red pill and return to a life less examined?
Invoking Aristotle here may give one pause to hope:
“Although these opinions seem to follow logically in a dialectical discussion, yet to believe them seems next door to madness when one considers the facts.” Aristotle 350 BC
There is just one more thing…All that I have shown you so far are my refutations — not my thesis. Here is my answer to the age-old question: “does nothing exist?” You can take it or leave it; after all, evidence appears to point to a universe of free will.
Thesis: Nothing does not exist because something does exist. And where there is something, no matter how infinitesimally small, there is the potential for infinite something, and that leaves no room for nothing.
For me, there is far too much SOMETHING for there to be an absolute nothing. Rainbows, the same ones that can be found in quarks, supernovae, rabbit holes, and on Hawaiian beaches, are a great little jelly bean of a package to sum that up for you.
To invoke in your memory and imagination something I could show you really anything; a picture of the Tower of Pisa, an astronaut on the moon, or the number zero. I could ask you to imagine an infinite set of numbers. Or I could ask you to remember the smell of the forest after a storm, the touch of an ocean wave breaking on your shoulders, the flutter in your chest when you see an old friend, or the sound of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. I could ask you to go outside and wait for the rain, to feel it fall on your skin, and to witness the rainbow that comes after the rain. There is a video clip that I especially enjoy watching when I feel the nothingness encroach. This video shows the scattering of the ashes of an Hawaiian legend, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole in 1997. This video shows hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the passing of a man who believed in rainbows, and really knew the value of something. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_DKWlrA24k&feature=kp
Did he become nothing when he died? Certainly, his memory lives on very strongly for many people, and perhaps in memory, the scribe of consciousness, is an eternal something. If something, even just one something, is eternal, can there really be room for absolute nothing, for at its very depths, there would always be that echo of the eternal, whispering on the horizon? Whispering ‘from something you came and to something you will return.’ So ask yourself when you next see a rainbow, can you state that you believe in nothing or will there always be for you, somewhere over the rainbow, a place where dreams always exist and by their very potential nothing is squeezed out into non-existence.
Rainbow Beach, Queensland, Australia.
Griffith, R., (2004). The Rig Veda. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. (original work punblished 1896).
Sarte, J., (2012). Being and nothingness. New York, NY: Open Road Media. (original work published, 1943)
Aristotle, (350 B.C.). On Generation and Corruption, I:8. translator H. H. Joachim, The Internet Classics Archive, retrieved 24 January 2009.
Sky Today (2013, June 27th), 7 most colourful beaches. Retrieved from http://sky-today.com/7-most-colorful-beaches/