The importance of nothing

The Void

Oxford University Press: 2007. 176 pp. $19.50, £9.99 9780199225903 | ISBN: 978-0-1992-2590-3

In nothing, there is the potential for everything, from the blank canvas of the artist, to the creation myths of the world's religions, to the richness of the quantum vacuum. The contemplation of nothing can lead to paralysing circularity — is 'no dogs' the same as 'no cats'? It has also led science popularizer Frank Close to create The Void as a guidebook through nothing for the general reader.

Close begins with a charming section that relates the questions of his youth, such as the reality of the world before one's own birth. Here he waxes poetic, describing our physical bodies: “We have not been created out of nothing, but from a primeval 'ur-matter', atoms formed billions of years ago that have for a brief while been gathered into collections that think they are us.” Sadly, such beautiful language is sparse in the rest of the book.

To the physical scientist, the vacuum is a fecund state; in some ways we parallel the struggles of the ancient Greeks who pondered the reality of space without matter. Although they flirted with the ideas of basic building blocks — atoms — between which empty space could exist, the aristotelian abhorrence of the vacuum dominated thinking for 2,000 years until the birth of experimental science. From his experiments on motion, Galileo inferred the pure motion of an object in vacuo, even though he couldn't produce one. The barometer of Torricelli, the Magdeburg spheres of von Guericke, and the wine-and-water theatrics of Pascal led us to the mechanistic view of the vacuum: there was now a truly empty space whose properties could be measured — for example, the ability to transmit light but not sound.

Did 'bubble' universes form during the Big Bang when a false vacuum sped up the expansion of matter? Credit: D. VAN RAVENSWAAY/SPL

Today's void is much more complicated, and Close guides the reader on the perilous journey past the battles over the existence of the ether, through Einstein's space-time and into the paradoxical world of the quantum vacuum. We sail the infinite sea of Dirac's antimatter states waiting to be excited into existence, to the Higgs vacuum from which all particles gain their mass, to the dark energy that accelerates the expansion of the Universe. And finally, to the origins of the Universe, where Close toys with Hawking's and Hartle's notions of imaginary time. It is an exhausting journey through the now-vital emptiness.

In the end, The Void is good for nothing — not great, but good. It covers very complicated concepts in a mostly accessible way, but lacks the graceful prose of either J. Barrow's The Book of Nothing or K. C. Cole's The Hole in the Universe. Often, Close struggles to make things understandable to the lay reader.

Cole, by contrast, simply reminds us of the alignment of iron filings around a magnet. For this journey, I would start with one of the earlier books, then try The Void for another perspective on the endlessly fascinating topic of nothing.

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Rudnick, L. The importance of nothing. Nature 450, 795 (2007).

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