What is nothing?

Shakespeare had it right – there has been much ado about nothing, at least in the scientific world. In some of my previous posts I have advocated the use of the scientific method on more general topics, such as politics. That method involves the rigorous evaluation of evidence, of making propositions in accord with that evidence, and most importantly, rejecting those that are clearly false. It may appear that for ordinary people, that might be too hard, but at least that method would be followed by scientists, right? Er, not necessarily. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn published a work, “The structure of scientific revolutions” and in it he argued that science itself has a very high level of conservatism. It is extremely difficult to change a current paradigm. If evidence is found that would do so, it is more likely to be secreted away in the bottom drawer, included in a scientific paper in a place where it is most likely to be ignored, or, if it is published, ignored anyway, and put in the bottom drawer of the mind. The problem seems to be, there is a roadblock towards thinking that something not in accord with expectations might be significant. With that in mind, what is nothing?

An obvious answer to the title question is that a vacuum is nothing. It is what is left when all the “somethings” are removed. But is there “nothing” anywhere? The ancient Greek philosophers argued about the void, and the issue was “settled” by Aristotle, who argued in his Physica that there could not be a void, because if there were, anything that moved in it would suffer no resistance, and hence would continue moving indefinitely. With such excellent thinking, he then, for some reason, refused to accept that the planets were moving essentially indefinitely, so they could be moving through a void, and if they were moving, they had to be moving around the sun. Success was at hand, especially if he realized that feathers did not fall as fast as stones because of wind resistance, but for some reason, having made such a spectacular start, he fell by the wayside, sticking to his long held prejudices. That raises the question, are such prejudices still around?

The usual concept of “nothing” is a vacuum, but what is a vacuum? Some figures from Wikipedia may help. A standard cubic centimetre of atmosphere has 2.5 x 10^19 molecules in it. That’s plenty. For those not used to “big figures”, 10^19 means the number where you write down 10 and follow it with 19 zeros, or you multiply 10 by itself nineteen times. Our vacuum cleaner gets the concentration of molecules down to 10^19, that is, the air pressure is two and a half times less in the cleaner. The Moon “atmosphere” has 4 x 10^5 molecules per cubic centimetre, so the Moon is not exactly in vacuum. Interplanetary space has 11 molecules per cubic centimetre, interstellar space has 1 molecule per cubic centimetre, and the best vacuum, intergalactic space, needs a million cubic centimetres to find one molecule.

The top of the Earth’s atmosphere, the thermosphere goes from 10^14 to 10^7. That is a little suspect at the top because you would expect it to gradually go down to that of interplanetary space. The reason there is a boundary is not because there is a sharp boundary, but rather it is the point where gas pressure is more or less matched by solar radiation pressure and that from solar winds, so it is difficult to make firm statements about further distances. Nevertheless, we know there is atmosphere out to a few hundred kilometres because there is a small drag on satellites.

So, intergalactic space is most certainly almost devoid of matter, but not quite. However, even without that, we are still not quite there with “nothing”. If nothing else, we know there are streams of photons going through it, probably a lot of cosmic rays (which are very rapidly moving atomic nuclei, usually stripped of some of their electrons, and accelerated by some extreme cosmic event) and possibly dark matter and dark energy. No doubt you have heard of dark matter and dark energy, but you have no idea what it is. Well, join the club. Nobody knows what either of them are, and it is just possible neither actually exist. This is not the place to go into that, so I just note that our nothing is not only difficult to find, but there may be mysterious stuff spoiling even what little there is.

However, to totally spoil our concept of nothing, we need to see quantum field theory. This is something of a mathematical nightmare, nevertheless conceptually it postulates that the Universe is full of fields, and particles are excitations of these fields. Now, a field at its most basic level is merely something to which you can attach a value at various coordinates. Thus a gravitational field is an expression such that if you know where you are and if you know what else is around you, you also know the force you will feel from it. However, in quantum field theory, there are a number of additional fields, thus there is a field for electrons, and actual electrons are excitations of such fields. While at this point the concept may seem harmless, if overly complicated, there is a problem. To explain how force fields behave, there needs to be force carriers. If we take the electric field as an example, the force carriers are sometimes called virtual photons, and these “carry” the force so that the required action occurs. If you have such force carriers, the Uncertainty Principle requires the vacuum to have an associated zero point energy. Thus a quantum system cannot be at rest, but must always be in motion and that includes any possible discrete units within the field. Again, according to Wikipedia, Richard Feynman and John Wheeler calculated there was enough zero point energy inside a light bulb to boil off all the water in the oceans. Of course, such energy cannot be used; to use energy you have to transfer it from a higher level to a lower level, when you get access to the difference. Zero point energy is at the lowest possible level.

But there is a catch. Recall Einstein’s E/c^2 = m? That means according to Einstein, all this zero point energy has the equivalent of inertial mass in terms of its effects on gravity. If so, then the gravity from all the zero point energy in vacuum can be calculated, and we can predict whether the Universe is expanding or contracting. The answer is, if quantum field theory is correct, the Universe should have collapsed long ago. The difference between prediction and observation is merely about 10^120, that is, ten multiplied by itself 120 times, and is the worst discrepancy between prediction and observation known to science. Even worse, some have argued the prediction was not right, and if it had been done “properly” they justified manipulating the error down to 10^40. That is still a terrible error, but to me, what is worse, what is supposed to be the most accurate theory ever is suddenly capable of turning up answers that differ by 10^80, which is roughly the same as the number of atoms in the known Universe.

Some might say, surely this indicates there is something wrong with the theory, and start looking elsewhere. Seemingly not. Quantum field theory is still regarded as the supreme theory, and such a disagreement is simply placed in the bottom shelf of the minds. After all, the mathematics are so elegant, or difficult, depending on your point of view. Can’t let observed facts get in the road of elegant mathematics!


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