The Science of Nothingness in Physics and the Universe
This discussion is about the concept of "nothing." Or a better way to describe it is the absence of physical particles in the universe.
Everything in our world has more space between its atoms than most people realize. Even the atoms that construct everything we know have enormous emptiness between its nucleus and electrons.
That empty space within and between all matter explains how the entire universe could fit in a single black hole. That could possibly reveal how the whole universe emerged with the Big Bang.
We'll examine how this explains the existence of everything in the universe and how it relates to mathematical thinking as well.
A Simple Explanation of Nothing
When I was in college many decades 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 me insane.
I didn't listen to him, and I spent the rest of my life studying scientific and philosophical essays by scholars on the subject.
You might think there's nothing to it, but "nothing" is quite enormous. It makes up the total of everything that is nonexistent, which is the emptiness within 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?
According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, nonexistence is the negation of being.
There are several ways to refer to this enormous entity:
All of these relate 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 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
The concept of "nothingness" is complicated to explain. A comparison to something one can understand might help. I guess a way to express "nothingness" in a way that one can envision is to say it's a void or a vacuum.
Another way to express it is mathematically. But due to its complicated nature, the Egyptians hated zero. However, they did just fine building the pyramids without it. As a result, roman numerals have no representation for zero.1
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 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. That 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=MC2 applies very well.
Energy and mass cannot be made or destroyed. It merely 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 its energy equivalent) was compressed into a single black hole. That compression is possible because the universe is mostly empty between all particles.
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 energy of mass is balanced by the negative energy of gravitation.3
Nothingness Explained With 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 indeed does exist. We simply may not be aware of it for particular reasons.
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 observe 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 beyond ours. It's just like a cartoon character that's drawn on a two-dimensional piece of paper. That character can't visualize what is happening above or below that flat surface.
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.
That particle merely is wiggling into the fourth dimension. 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 merely is 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. Perhaps 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 discussions.
I'll leave you with this thought, applying reverse logic:
One might say that "something" is the void between the emptiness.
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. That's because physical mass is also mostly made of nothing, due to the enormous emptiness within its structure.
That brings up another discussion that I get further into in another article: Why the Universe Is Mostly Empty Space.
I hope I didn't leave you feeling too empty!
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Glenn Stok