From WSF: The intriguing study of nothing — vacuums, voids and the time before time

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Photo: Robert Leslie. Courtesy WSF

Last night, the TEDBlog attended the World Science Festival‘s second night of proceedings, specifically the session titled “Nothing: The Subtle Science of Emptiness.” The evening began with a warm welcome for the illustrious journalist John Hockenberry, who described himself as our “launch vehicle into an area of sophisticated science.” He stayed true to his word throughout proceedings, laughing and joking the audience through deep quantum theory. Some of the most difficult concepts in science today were explained for the amateur enthusiast.

John Barrow, cosmologist at Cambridge first took the stage to present a brief history of nothing. He highlighted the role of nothing in the arts and music, reminding us of The Beatles statement that “Nothing is real,” and John Cage’s piece 4’33” — the sound of nothing. He took us back to the beginning of human civilization to ask the question of why the concept of zero arose in some cultures but not others? The Greeks, Barrow explained, had no zero, because to create the concept of zero would have been to sow the seeds of negativity.

Barrow went on to address harder science, chronicling the development of the understanding of nothing. Beginning with Aristotle’s view that the vacuum could never be realized, he worked his way through the discoveries of Blaise Pascal, Otto von Guericke and James Clerk Maxwell to arrive at the theories of present-day quantum mechanics. At this point, he made the grim conclusion that vacuum states can change, that our universe may be at an intermediate vacuum state and that there is always the possibility that we could drop to a state whose physics we don’t know and consequences we can’t predict — in other words, the end of all existence as we know it. On a lighter note, it was then time to introduce the panel.

To great applause, John Hockenberry introduced Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, co-author of the The Large Scale Structure of Space Time George Ellis, and co-director of the ASU Cosmology initiative, Paul Davies. As the discussion warmed up, Ellis launched into one of the physicist’s greatest struggles and one that he deals with in his book Before the Beginning — what was there before space and time, if anything? And how did this all begin?

READ MORE: Explanations of why something rather than nothing, why not to fear the LHC and why we should all heed the example of Copernicus. Davies contributed that if we understand the universe’s beginning as a natural process, governed by laws, it would be a very strange law that applied only once. So, surely, there should have been many bangs. Barrow threw in that it’s pure speculation that there was a beginning to the universe at all. Davies humorously conjectured that as there’s only one way to have nothing, but many ways to have something, statistically something was simply more likely to occur. Finally Wilczek put the nail in the coffin, saying we have something because nothing is unstable. Although we might think of nothing as having the smallest possible energy, he said, it doesn’t.

The night continued with references to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). When asked if he’s worried about the huge costs incurred to investigate “nothing,” Wilczek joked, “It doesn’t cost anything really, because it’s all in Euros.” When asked if he’s afraid that it will end the world, he replied that nature has always been doing experiments with more violent conditions than we can create and we haven’t ended yet.

As a whole, the panel reminded us that often when we think that we are perceiving “nothing,” in reality, we may have discovered something that we haven’t developed the technology to “see.” Wilczek elaborated, saying our senses provide us only very small samples of reality, so that if where we see nothing, there’s actually a lot going on — well, that’s not very surprising. But, Barrow really summed up the sentiment at the discussion’s end when he said, “Thinking that the only forces that there are are the ones we have the technology to detect is a sort of anti-Copernican theory.”