Magazine article The Spectator

'Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing', by James Owen Weatherall - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing', by James Owen Weatherall - Review

Article excerpt

Nothing will come of nothing, said Lear, because he wasn't familiar with quantum physics. According to our current best theories, a region of space that contains nothing at all is still seething with pairs of virtual particles popping in and out of existence for no good reason. Meanwhile, it is possible to be mathematically sure that an entire universe contains nothing whatsoever, but then if you go looking for stuff in a particular part of this same universe you could find a wheelbarrow.

But what did I mean by 'a region of space'? It turns out that all sorts of assumptions are baked into such a phrase depending on what cosmology I have -- and similarly with the ideas of 'stuff' and its alleged opposite, 'nothing'. What this entertainingly mind-expanding primer on physics accomplishes brilliantly is to demonstrate how much confusion, but also how much fruitful progress, arises from the tension between our folk concepts of what counts as 'nothing' (and, concomitantly, what counts as 'stuff'), and the way such concepts are retooled and stretched almost beyond comprehension for scientific purposes.

The story is told through refreshingly nuanced accounts of three revolutions in physics. First, Isaac Newton's account of gravity painted a picture of space as basically an empty container in which bodies could move. This void was 'absolute', Newton thought: effectively describable by a vast system of objective Cartesian co-ordinates given by God. Newton's great rival Leibniz disagreed: he thought that the relative space between actual objects (planets and the like) was all we could reasonably talk about. (Leibniz turned out to be right.)

The second revolution arrives with Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, bolstered by Hermann Minkowski's mathematics of spacetime. Among its surprising results is that the geometrical structure of 'empty' spacetime itself depends on the stuff that is zooming around in it. (Mass bends spacetime, and the bendiness results in what we loosely call the 'force' of gravity.) More peculiarly, it turns out that a universe obeying Einsteinian equations can be totally empty of anything we would normally call 'stuff' (particles, matter in general), but it can still contain a black hole, or gravity waves (which are ripples in the geometry of 'empty' spacetime itself). …

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