The Science of Nothing
What happens when you have a universe, but you take all of the objects out of it? What exists in the absence of "stuff"? Is there anything at all left?
These are the basic questions at the heart of Frank Close's book The Void, a fairly comprehensive survey of what science has to say about the concept of nothingness. As he points out, it's a concept of interest far back into antiquity, because even the ancient Greeks worried about it. Does space exist as a thing in itself, or is it merely the stage upon which matter acts out?
In more modern times, the questions have grown ever more complex. While trying to understand the behavior of light in the wake of Young's double slit experiment, physicists believed there must be a fundamental material, which they called luminous ether, filling the entire universe. Under this belief, there was no true vacuum, no part of the universe that could be truly devoid of substance.
However, over the last century, since the ether theory has been basically disproven (at least in its original form), scientific inquiry into nothingness has focused more firmly on quantum theory and relativity, which describe a universe in which even empty space contains energy and a teaming mass of virtual particles that spring in and out of existence. Close closes out the book with a discussion of the Higgs field and how it relates to the concept of an empty space.
It is useful to compare the material in this book to that covered in A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. The books do cover much of the same material, but the emphasis is different. Krauss's fundamental concern is exploring the origins of the universe and, in doing so, he comes up against the concept of nothingness. Close, on the other hand, begins with the concept of nothingness and, in the course of discussing it, comes across questions (and answers) about how the universe began. The books together represent a pretty comprehensive look at what science has to say about nothingness, but the reader gets a pretty good grasp on the idea from either book alone, depending on which approach most appeals to the reader. Krauss' treatment of the subject is a bit more accessible, grounded as it is in a question about the origins of the universe, which has more appeal than a general survey of the concept of a vacuum.
About the Author
Frank Close is a Professor of Physics at Oxford University and a Fellow of Exeter College. He has formerly been the Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN, the vice president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Head of Theoretical Physics at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
In addition to his accomplishments as a physicist, Close has been widely recognized for his best-selling work writing about physics. In 1996, he receive the Kelvin Medal for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of physics, presented by the Institute of Physics. He later received the 2007 Syngenta Prize for best science writing in a non-scientific context in the UK media. His other books include:
- The Cosmic Onion: Quarks and the Nature of the Universe (1983)
- The Particle Explosion (1987)
- End: Cosmic Catastrophe and the Fate of the Universe (1988)
- Too Hot to Handle: The Story of the Race for Cold Fusion (1991)
- Lucifer's Legacy: The Meaning of Asymmetry (2000)
- The Particle Odyssey: A Journey to the Heart of the Matter (2002)
- Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction (2004)
- The New Cosmic Onion: Quarks and the Nature of the Universe (2007)
- Antimatter (2009)
- Nothing: A Very Short Introduction (2009)
- Neutrino (2010)
- The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for the Orderly Universe (2011)
Publication Date: 2007
Length: 166 pages
- 9 chapters
- Notes (2 pages)
- Bibliography (2 pages)
- Index (6 pages)