What Is Nothingness in Physics and the Universe?

Updated on June 17, 2017
Glenn Stok profile image

With a Master of Science degree, cosmology is one of my many interests. The study of the universe brings me to thoughts of how we fit in.

This discussion is about the concept of "nothing," or the absence of physical particles in the universe. We'll also examine how this relates to mathematical thinking.

I remember when I was in college some 40 years ago, I used to contemplate thoughts of infinity and the results of dividing by zero. A physics professor once told me not to think about those things because it would drive myself insane.

I didn't listen to him. I spent the rest of my life studying scientific and philosophical essays by scholars on the subject.


A Simple Explanation of Nothing

You might think there's nothing to it, but "nothing" is actually quite enormous. It makes up the sum total of everything that is nonexistent, which is the emptiness between all matter.

Matter, on the other hand, is mass that occupies space. However, that mass contains a lot of nothing between its molecules and within its atoms. That means there is an entire universe of nonexistence within our physical world.

What Is Nonexistence Like?

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, nonexistence is the negation of being.

There are several ways to refer to this enormous entity:

  • zero
  • null
  • empty
  • vacuum
  • void

All of these refer to the idea of nonexistence. There is more of this "nothingness" in the universe than there is physical existence. However, none of this is empty. We need to define what “empty” means in order to understand "nothing". Emptiness can be filled endlessly with more nothing without ever becoming full.

That's the beauty of nothing. It's endless. It never runs out. It's timeless.

Mathematical Explanation of Nothingness

Charles Seife, professor of journalism at New York University and author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, explains nothingness as follows:

Zero minus zero becomes a null set. That's as close to nothing as I can imagine. And if you do the reverse, you put a null set in another null set, you create zero.

— Charles Seife, "Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea"

The Egyptians hated zero. They did just fine building the pyramids without it. Roman numerals have no representation for zero.{1} It didn't matter because the Romans never applied their numerals to arithmetic.

The History of the Number Zero

The Greek philosopher Aristotle never accepted the concept of division by zero. He found too many paradoxes with it. I could explain the problems he ran into with it, but it's beyond the scope of this article.

Suffice it to say that we interpret division by zero as infinity. Zero can go into anything an infinite number of times.

The ancient Greeks were aware of the concept of zero. After all, they knew when they had no stones.

And the Egyptians, well, they eventually acquired the use of the number zero from the Babylonians.{2}

Did the Universe Come from Nothing?

Quantum physics already shows us how a particle can go from existence to nonexistence and back again. This is quantum fluctuation.

It may actually be moving through time, so once it is no longer in the present we no longer see it. We might consider it to have become "nothing" or "void" of existence.

Even while nonexistent, the energy never dissipates. Einstein's formula E=MC2applies very well.

Einstein's famous formula
Einstein's famous formula

Energy and mass cannot be made or destroyed. It simply changes from one to another as per his formula.

So if the universe came from nothing, where was all that energy before the beginning? There are two theories.

One is the Big Bang, which works on the theory that all matter (and therefore it’s energy equivalent) was compressed into a single black hole. That compression is possible if you consider the idea that the Universe is mostly nothing.

Edward Tyron, an American scientist and a professor of physics at Hunter College in New York City, had a different theory. In 1973, he proposed the idea of a zero-energy universe that emerged from a vacuum of energy. That is to say, it emerged from nothing—where all the positive mass-energy is balanced by the negative energy of gravitation.{3}

Nothingness in Quantum Physics and String Theory

Why am I bringing up String Theory? Because I'm going to show you how we can misinterpret the concept of "nothing" when something truly does exist. We simply may not be aware of it for certain reasons.

In order to understand string theory, you have to understand that time is the fourth dimension in mathematical terms.

Our three-dimensional world exists in the present. However, it also moves forward in time.

To understand this better, consider the fact that one dimension is simply a line. You can only move back and forth in the length of that line.

If you go 90 degrees perpendicular to that line, you create a plain (a flat surface) where you can move in two dimensions: length and width.

If you go 90 degrees perpendicular to that flat surface, you are moving in three dimensions: length, width and height.

If you consider another 90-degree turn, the three-dimensional space that we live in moves perpendicular at a 90-degree angle through the fourth dimension: Time.

Note, however, that we can't see into that fourth dimension. We can't see the past or the future. We can only remember the past, and we can only anticipate the future.

String theory shows how we can observe an object wiggling around in a three-dimensional space. However, once that object wiggles in a fourth dimension it leaves our awareness.

It still exists, but we can't observe anything in dimensions higher than ours. Just like a cartoon character drawn on a two-dimensional piece of paper can't visualize what is happening above or below that flat surface.

A two-dimensional plane in a three-dimensional world
A two-dimensional plane in a three-dimensional world

As I think about this object wiggling around in a fourth dimension, I realize it is traveling through time because time is the fourth dimension. This consideration brings to mind that quantum physics may be related to string theory.

Quantum physics has shown that particles can move from one location to another instantaneously without existing anywhere in between. String Theory can help explain how this works.

The particle is simply wiggling into the fourth dimension, and once it's there it is outside of our awareness. Eventually it wiggles back into our three-dimensional world in a different location, and we see it again.

Does that mean that it became nothing and then later became something again? If that particle is simply unobservable, then who's to say that it is nothing? Just because we can't see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I wonder if that's why the Egyptians hated zero. Maybe they knew better. Maybe they knew something.

A Little Fun with Comprehension of Nothingness

A little humor never hurts, especially when we get so deep into these scientific and philosophical discussion. I'll leave you with this thought: One might say that "something" is the void between the emptiness.

I get it!
I get it!

What that means is that once we "get something" we have a complete understanding of that which was once a void in our knowledge.

That's my way of applying string theory to human comprehension. Imagine that! You've heard it here first. I made that up.

Remember that it has nothing to do with “something” being a physical substance, which is also mostly nothing. That actually is another discussion that I get further into in my article: Why the Universe Is Mostly Empty Space.


© 2015 Glenn Stok


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    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      7 weeks ago from Long Island, NY

      Eugene Brennan - I discussed nothingness in several different ways in this article. In a mathematical sense, I used string theory to explain how things can disappear from our “awareness” and therefore seem like nothing. Eugene, maybe I need to rework that section to make that clearer. Let me know what you think. I have this article on my list to update soon anyway.

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 

      7 weeks ago from Ireland

      Can we truly have nothingness between atoms or sub-atomic particles in the mathematical sense? There will always be electric and magnetic fields but are they "somethingness" that permeates the intervening space?

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      7 weeks ago from Long Island, NY

      Robert Ehlenfldt - It seems you’re asking for a better explanation. Nothingness, as I refer to in this article, is the emptiness between all matter. That includes the emptiness between the elements of atoms. It's all mostly empty space. That emptiness explains how the entire universe could fit in a single black hole, possibly from which the Big Bang emerged.

    • profile image

      Robert Ehlenfldt 

      7 weeks ago

      Defining nothingness (a notion perhaps deeper than space) as a concept, conceptual reference, or singularity makes nothingness into something. As said, once you have matter, space exists by definition. But nothingness per se has no existence, no definition, no location. It isn't anywhere; it simply isn't. So why is there matter and how did it come to be somewhere? I see no reason for it. The explanation for subatomic particles seeming to pop in and out of existence is explained by saying that they don't actually do this--their existence is perpetual in time, intermittent in regional space. So the existence of matter isn't really accounted for. Disembodied consciousness(?) might be an explanation some find satisfying and account for the idea of a creator, an unmoved mover.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      4 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Anton – You have a very unique way of expressing abstract thoughts. Well done.

    • profile image

      Anton Al 

      4 months ago

      I think that we need to have better ideas, concepts, notion and definitions about all that, and other questions like this one.

      Many of these words have distinct meanings in function.

      Space, for example, could simply specify a linear, bi-dimensional, tri-dimensional, quad-dimensional, or other conceptual reference. Such as abstract distance, area, volume, or other concept. It's not, clearly, a concrete thing in a physical world of objects and its inherent constitutional forces.

      The concept of zero, null, space, emptiness or other abstract ideas are virtual objects, they are not of the physical universe, but we use them as a means to represent the interior or exterior of all things that exist. They are all realities from distinct domains belonging to the physical universe and the others to the wonderful virtual universe!

      Anton Alves

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      23 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Louis Gennaro - Good point. The fact of the matter is that “nothing” is very difficult to define other than using a comparison as you had indicated I am doing.

      I guess a way to express a definition of nothing that you can envision is that it’s a void, or a vacuum. Does that help?

    • profile image

      Louis Gennaro 

      23 months ago

      Very interesting . I have one question. Can anyone DEFINE what "NOTHING" is ? All I hear is that nothing is a lack of something. That tells me what it isn't, it does not tell me what it is. As is the case with you and your erstwhile physics professor, this can drive me crazy. I cannot envision "nothing" without comparing it to "something", or the lack thereof. This is not a definition, it is merely a comparison.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      3 years ago from Long Island, NY

      eugbug - I think I answer your question in my other hub - "The Evolution of Infinite Time and Space."

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 

      3 years ago from Ireland

      Chefsref, as regards the Big Bang, apparently, or so physicists tell us, it happened everywhere and nowhere. It wasn't a case of there being a huge empty void which something blew up and expanded into. In the beginning, the precursor to the Big Bang was a singularity with no dimensions. Space and time didn't exist either, there was just nothingness. When the big Bang began, space and time were created and space began to expand and grow larger to form the immense entity we know today.

      Glenn, I know the feeling about getting tied up in knots contemplating these sort of things. I remember being lost in thought as an 8 year old and when the teacher asked me what was up, I told him I was trying to grasp the infinity of space! Anyway have you any thoughts on the nature of motion? How something can continually essentially de-materialise from one point in space and re-appear adjacent to its original position. In a way it's a little like teleportation except the constituent particles of the object occupy the intervening points in space.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      MizBejabbers - You seem to have a better understanding of "nothing" than you give yourself credit for. I enjoyed reading your comment. Thanks for getting all the way through my hub, even if not to infinity.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      4 years ago from Beautiful South

      Yep, I'll admit it, I'm certainly not normal, nor am I a scientist, so your article about nothing struck no recognition in my brain. However, my Dad would have loved it. He always said that there was nothing after you died. I do go crazy trying to imagine the beginning before the Big Bang, but not crazy enough to try to figure it out. Every time I see it fold over like cake batter being folded (a very "scientific" view written by one of the Big Bang theorists) My mind hits a wall and refuses to go into infinity.

      Thanks for "nothing," Glen, it was fun!

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      MsDora - Maybe all my readers are insane for following me. lol. Now all I need is nothing more.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      You have said quite a bunch about nothing. Please take my next statement in a fun, teasing way. I don't think these thought will make anyone insane; I think they come from, and are interesting to people who are already insane. Just so you know, I'll keep reading.

    • Glenn Stok profile imageAUTHOR

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      chefsref - Thanks for such a positive review. You are right that space is filled with subatomic particles. That is a known fact. And it's also true that they pop in and out of existence. I made reference to that in this hub. It's falls under the discoveries of quantum physics.

      But space is still mostly empty. Even a solid stone is mostly empty space when you consider the enormous space between the subatomic particles.

      As for your quiery about the Big Bang, you may find my other hub on the subject answers some questions: "How Time, the Big Bang, and Infinity Are Related to the Universe." You can find that, and others about time and space, in my profile listing.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 

      4 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Glenn

      Your Hubs are fascinating and provocative.

      True "nothing" is almost incomprehensible. In my first casual thought, nothing just sounds like empty space yet I have read that the Big Bang created not only time and matter but also space. So. . . . just where did the Big Bang happen if there were no place to begin with?

      Now Physicists claim that empty space isn't really empty at all but is filled with subatomic particles that pop in and out of existence. I suppose it also remains to explain dark matter and dark energy, both aspects of space where we used to think there was nothing.

      It would be interesting to return at some future date and learn how these questions are answered.


    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 

      4 years ago from Escondido, CA

      Hooray! An article of 'Nothing' that is really is 'Something' that may explain 'Everything'. ;-) I like the logic shared with this article, of which I feel a worthy read. I have been enlightened with the science of 'Nothingness' with new knowledge. I must ponder . . .

      I have always speculated while pondering between the concepts shared here with zero, the null set, and greater than and less than. Interesting enough the philosophy I have encountered states that 'zero' is something and does occupy space. It simply is a point along a line. Herein we may encounter dimensions. I must admit I had not seen the explanation of the relationship between zero and the null set until reading this article. Worth a peek IMHO. I will ponder . . .

      Thank you Glenn for writing this stimulating article


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