This book is a collection of articles written by authors with an extensive background in science, scientific reporting, and writing. As the subtitle of the book hints, it is a gourmet of articles from varied fields - from the voids of the quantum world to the voids on the cosmic scale, the studies of things that go on in our brains when we do absolutely nothing, and how one can be healed or killed by nothing at all, the story of zero that symbolizes nothing and to the revelations when we try to create nothing and how nothing can create something. This isn't a book review exactly but should give you a good flavour of different nothings.
From absolute zero to cosmic oblivion - amazing insights into nothingness.
"Nothing is more interesting than nothing, nothing is more puzzling than nothing, and nothing is more important than nothing."
The articles have been organized in an overall theme of a story - a beginning, the mysteries of being, the sense making process, the journey forward and finally the conclusion of the story. This is a heady mixture and it is easy to lose sense of where we are headed. First, we talk about how the universe was formed in sufficient detail, and then we dive into our heads to see where does it spend all the energy as we do nothing at all.
My head often hurts when I try to think about the shape of the universe. It is explained to be the surface of the balloon that is being inflated, but we are told it is just the surface and not the interior volume. My mind insists, "how can I not think of the interior when the surface is expanding". Did this book help? Not quite, but I am getting better. Then, I never really appreciated the E=mc2 equation from the way it was introduced in school. Yes, it is the mass energy equivalence relationship, but if that is so, what is the mass of a photon? No body explained why it is almost fruitless to think of it that way. The book helped understand. It is the flipped relationship worth looking at to understand it better. Given a photon with sufficient energy, mass can be created. That is how something tangible is created out of nothing. That is what is expected to have been commonplace occurrence during the formative years of our universe. This makes much more sense! I feel, light.
How easy it is to believe that a second is too small for anything significant to happen on a macro-scale. However, our entire existence might have popped up in less than that time. I find that it to be extremely magnificent and motivating! Perhaps, Kipling knew about a secret nobody understood when he wrote: "If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with 60 seconds' worth of distance run, your's is the Earth and everything that's in it, And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!". The scale at which things can happen is mind boggling. Some scientists believe that as many important events occurred in the first hundredth of a second after the big bang as in the duration from one hundredth to one tenth of a second (That's the logarithmic scale near zero). Scientists at CERN have been able to create the conditions that might have existed at 1e-12 seconds after the big bang. They can hypothesize to 1e-35 seconds and yet, that is not even close to t=0 or in answering what caused the big-bang. While it might be an important question to know what happened before the big bang, but scientists have another explanation. There was nothing before the big bang. Nothing here implies the lack of not just physical existence but also any possibility of logical existence. It is much like Hawking explained, "the question 'What lies north of the North Pole?' can also be answered by 'nothing', not because there is some mysterious Land of Nothing there, but because the region referred to simply does not exist". Likewise, time began with the big bang! Those banking on Quantum Theory are very comfortable with the notion that it just happened spontaneously. It is agreed that at the very fundamental level, quantum fluctuations are truly random, and the probability of such large events might be infinitesimally small, but possible. "For example, take a collection of uranium atoms undergoing spontaneous decay due to quantum processes in their nuclei. There will be a definite time period, the half-life, after which half the nuclei should have decayed. But according to Heisenberg, it is not possible, even in principle, to predict when a particular nucleus will decay. If you ask, having seen a particular nucleus decay, why the decay happened at the moment rather than some other, there is no deeper reason, no underlying set of causes, that explains it. It just happens." Such a beautiful statement and all I can only think of is, 'it sounds a lot like love!'. Maybe Einstein had some idea while he wrote: "Falling in love is not at all the most stupid thing that people do, but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it." Blame it on the spontaneity of our being which might turn out to be the reason for gravity too! Countless poets and romantics have termed everything in this universe as an act of love. Blame it on the spontaneity of our being and - who knows - it might turn out to be the reason for gravity too! (On a quantum level too, there are essentially two kinds of particles, those which like to socialize 'bosons', and those which don't 'fermions'). Countless poets and romantics have termed everything in this universe as an act of love. In How to Read a Book, the authors tell how "love has been attributed to almost everything in the universe; that is, everything that exists has been said by someone either to love or to be loved or both. Stones are said to love the center of the earth. The upward motion of fire is called a function of its love. The attraction of iron filings to a magnet is described as an effect of love. Tracts have been written on the love life of amoebae, paramecia, snails and ants, to say nothing of most of the so-called higher animals, who are said to love their masters as well as one another"
It isn't just time where minuscule intervals have monstrous impacts. The race to absolute zero has revealed that the unexpected happens as we drop even a very small fraction at low temperatures. How low? "For smaller amounts of material - up to just a million atoms or so, we can cool them atom by atom using laser light This has slowed atoms from moving at around 1 meter per second at 1 millikelvin to roughly 1 millimeter per second at 1 nanokelvin." That's almost zero, but not quite there, and things are still changing! From the discovery of superconductivity to that of super-fluids, this cold world is full of surprises! If you want to watch solid pass through solid, this is the area you want to be in. It is hard to maintain such temperatures. "If a butterfly happened to find itself in a refrigerator containing a cubic centimeter of copper at 0.001K, the very act of the butterfly falling 10 centimeters would raise the copper's temperature 100-fold." And here I was wishing they'd give me the impact of the butterfly flapping its wing once (the butterfly effect), but I guess that the physicist was just being real. But why can't we get to the absolute zero? The Third law of thermodynamics explains why. To reach 0K, one will need to transfer heat from the body being cooled to some place else which is at a lower temperature (heat flows down the gradient). So, to even theoretically cool something to absolute zero, we'll need another object that is at at-least absolute zero if not below. That isn't possible. But, without such low temperatures, without superfluids and superconductors, there would be no Large Hadron Collider either. A few days back, one of my roomies was watching same movie where the rebels had access to some ghostly powers that allowed them to pass through walls, stay invisible and kill. Somewhere in the movie - whilst I was watching the subtitles without sound - some guy said that he had -figured out what that was. It was a Bose-Einstein Condensate. It piqued my senses, where have I heard that before. It is then I remembered that it had to be 'Nothing'. Science fiction bringing about things from the netherworld to the heatherworld.
It seems remarkably strange for the universe to be lopsided. "Light can be blindingly bright and sound deafeningy loud. But you can't get darker than dark or quieter than silence. Likewise, while stars can burn at 1 billion degree Celcius, but there's a temperature below which the universe cannot go". Time may go on for ever, but we sometimes choose an epoch. Many quibble that the laws of Physics under which we study the universe are but creations of man to better explain the universe. This runs into problems of explaining the origin of universe then, since something that is created as a result of a causation cannot explain the cause satisfactorily. To this end, scientists like to believe that Physical Laws have an independent existence. It is an act of faith, in a certain sense. This is akin to Godel's incompleteness theorem of Mathematics - that one cannot prove the mathematical laws to be true and not run into paradoxes while believing that mathematics is complete in itself. One has to resort to meta-methematical rules in order to claim that the axioms of mathematics can be taken to be true. [Source: The Information, p181.] "Although as a consequence of Kurt Godel's famous incompleteness theorem of logic, one cannot prove a given set of laws, or mathematical axioms, to be the most compact set possible, one can investigate mathematically whether other logically self-consistent sets of laws exist."
The concept of vacuum and the definition of vacuum definitely do not fit. Does a perfect vaccum exist? A few months back, a few of my colleagues were discussing whether the space is a vaccum or not? The book answers those questions. To put that question's answer into perspective, "Outer space is not a perfect vacuum, nor are all cosmic vacuums equal". Not only that, it gives a new life to the entire concept. Even vacuum cleaners don't have vacuum. The vacuumed glass chambers where one might get to see the Tesla Coil spark concert isn't a vaccum either. All are just good-enough vaccums to fit the application. A thought provoking question is raised "If two bodies are separated by nothing, should they not be in contact? How can 'emptiness' keep things apart, or have properties such as size or boundaries?" Vaccum is important. It led to the exploration of cathode rays and plasma, and X-rays and the Photoelectric Effect. Vacuum is now an industrial demand for Semiconductor technology and nuclear sciences. But again, how low can you go (in terms of pressure)? It only gets more interesting when we want to store anti-matter! Matter and anti-matter will annihilate explosively if they come into contact. But, scientists are able to store anti-matter. If any 'molecule' qualifies as being matter, the containment chambers have to be devoid of any molecule - create a perfect vacuum. Or, create a 'sufficient' vacuum. While it is hard to measure how much pressure is there inside those containment chambers, the particle density to avoid contact between matter and antimatter is calculated to be lesser than 100 atoms per cubic meter (roughly, 1e-16 mbar). OK, so pressure is one measure of vacuum (for gaseous stuff I think) - "the higher the vacuum, the larger the average separation of the gas particles". Still, the indiscriminate working of gravity on huge stars as well as the tenuous gas particles in the netherlands of the universe sounds like an amazing act of equity! Everything holding everything in its place - a precarious kind of balance. And the kind of stuff scientists do to get to these findings is amazing in itself. But then comes the twist! Vacuum is teeming with activity of a different sort. Quantum-field fluctuations which average to zero. Beware the averages. There was a statistician who drowned in a ford that was 3 feet deep on average. An aspect of these fluctuations led to calling such invisible quantum vacuum as 'dark energy' which has anti-gravity effects and is causing the universe to expand faster! So much for nothing? That is not it. Some scientists claim to have created light by squeezing a vacuum just the right way (Casimir effect).
Space is not just about vacuum. It is also about gravity, and when every particle exerts its effect, it is only obvious to ask if the effects cancel out somewhere. Recently, India sent Mangalyaan to Mars and it is said to be cheaper than the entire cost of production of the movie 'Gravity'. Perhaps, the fuel efficiency achieved by our scientists was due to proper trajectory planning and also the gravity slingshot. I think, this book helped explain what space scientists have known ever since Lagrange (I am not sure, though). The gravity contours and points of intersection where gravity effects cancel out allowing switching to new orbits without expending much fuel. Just like there are topological contours on earth which Victorian engineers found to be the optimal paths to follow to lay down railway lines, there are gravitation contours on which, once an object is placed, it will move while expending minimal fuel. Somebody ask Elon Musk to build a tube from Earth to Mars along these contours please!
It is often said that an empty mind is the devil's workshop. But some have actually sought answers to what the devil is up to. It turns out, they might have stumbled across Mephistopheles from Goethe's Faust - "Part of that Power, not understood, Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good." Consistency in behaviour - of lighting up when idle and shutting down the moment conscious work arrived - has led to the discovery of what many call the "Default Network" of the brain. With 30% more energy consumption (gram for gram) in many parts of this network compared to rest of the system, that shouldn't even be called a standby mode. Scientists have been trying to work through the details of what it is doing. A part of it (prefrontal cortex) is known to evaluate things from a self-centered perspective of whether they're likely to be good, bad or indifferent. (Hmm, that might explain why I have a dominant 'I'!) Take this part away and one may no longer find a company in oneself! "A woman who recovered from a stroke in that area recalled inhabiting an empty mind, devoid of the wandering, stream-of-consciousness thoughts that most of us take for granted." It is also connected to the hippocampus - the area where short term memories and spatial cognition is likely to be seated. Some say that the default network is related to daydreaming, others associate it with the sense-making machinery which incorporates feedback from experiences into our psyche (kind of a disk defragmentation utility I used to use on Windows). This kind of begs the question - those who spend their time in a very planned and busy manner, those who leave little room for relaxation and refreshment, are they more likely to make the same mistakes again due to this bloat and not fatigue? It also seems that many brain diseases implicate the default network. Alzheimer's Disease, Depression, ADHD, Autism, Schizophrenia, all seem to affect the default network adversely (or possibly, malfunction in the default network leads to them).
Not only is the brain busy while we are doing nothing, it can also turn something that was actually nothing into something that isn't nothing. Sorry about the circumlocution! 'Faith' in the efficacy of medicine or a treatment on the part of its recipient can have positive effects. This is Placebo effect, which is hard to quantify as science as of yet and is rarely a recommended approach. Not only does endorsing the concept of Placebo effect make the medical scientists a bit uncomfortable, it also makes suspect of the efficacy of many drugs as they are purported to. In regard to a painkiller called a CCK-antagonist, Michael Brooks writes, "when Benedetti gave the same drug to volunteers without telling them what he was doing, it had no effect. 'If it were a real painkiller, we should expect no difference compared to the routine overt administration,' he says. 'The very act of administering a drug activates a complex cascade of biochemical events in the patient's brain.'" This is also reported to be true for diazepam, a medicine to relieve anxiety where it doesn't work if the patient doesn't know that they are taking it. Good expectation from the medication on the part of seems to help the medicine go an extra mile in helping the patient. A dose of at least 12mg of morphine is needed to get a painkilling effect if no 'mental conditioning' is done, else, far lower doses can make a difference. There is, of course, a far outnumbered body of work that attaches little importance to the placebo effect. "The placebo effect can make you feel better - even if you aren't actually better". Meditation, positive thinking about yourself and the world, and having warm relations with people (those who make you feel comfortable) go a long way in enhancing mental and physical well being. Hrobjartsson argues 'My concern is not so much whether effects of placebo are real or not, but whether there is evidence for clinically relevant effects.' If firm belief in the efficacy of medicine could do wonders, then we also have its darker sibling - the nocebo effect. Killed by hex, black magic and other things - where people drop without anything being wrong with them have long baffled many. If one just googles about telomeres (DNA caps), one would find very recent results linking stress to the reduction in length of telomeres, aging and other things. "'Beliefs and expectations are not only conscious, logical phenomenon, they also have physical consequences,' says Hahn." The efficacy of treatments is also linked to the expectations set up with it. Studies show that "many patients who suffer harmful side effects, for instance, may do so only because they have been told to expect them...". This puts doctors in a tricky situation. "'On the one hand people have the right to be informed about what to expect, but this makes it more likely they will experience these effects', says Mazzoni." There was a book I read before this. I haven't reviewed that yet (Why zebra's don't get ulcers). While reading through the articles on stress and coping with just believing, I could recall having read similar things there.
While we still are in our heads, let us also discuss conscience or rather, the absense of it. Science might have grown leaps and bounds, but there are some things that we seem to use without fully understanding how they work, or why they work. For example, Paracetamol, and anesthesia. Anaesthesia "is one of the commonest medical procedures in the world, yet we still don't know how the drugs work. Perhaps this isn't surprising: we still don't understand consciousness, so how can we comprehend its disappearance?" While similar state of altered consciousness occurs in sleep or when one is whacked on the head into unconsciousness, anesthesia allows to do it safely and with precision. "Although long overshadowed by the surgeons who patch up you, the humble 'gas man' does just as important a job, holding you in the twilight between life and death." No one knows for sure whether it is due to shutting down of the information pathways between different parts of the brain or a deluge of signals to effectively drown the relevant signals that makes us unconscious. But one thing is certain, those unfortunate guys hanging in the limbo of coma - they might be getting visuals but are not seeing anything.
Even if the gears of the mind are churning away, doing nothing physically is surely detrimental. Various studies have revealed how our recent labour-saving lifestyle has caused the once-rare diseases to proliferate - Diabetes, cardiovascular failures etc. 'Everyone knows too much booze or tobacco is bad for you, but if physical inactivity was packaged and sold as a product, it would need to carry a health warning label', says Hughes, senior lecturer in sport and exercise medicine at Queen Mary, University of London. How it does that? 'Exercise can stimulate circulation, flush out fatty deposits in the walls of blood vessels and dilate small vessels that could otherwise be the cause of a heart attack or stroke'. It is a wonder pill (and I already feel like running... away). A single experiment about doing nothing at all seems to have changed the way medical practitioners look at recovery and healing. Earlier, heart patients were asked to have a complete bed rest. An experiment in America when the space age was dawning revealed the terrible decline of capacity that a mere 20 days of absolute bedrest could do. More so, a follow-up study of the same group years after that revealed that those who exercised were better off than those who didn't. While it would be a no-brainer to say that. But the stats of 'how much better?' are astounding. It is a lot! It is found that the heart adapts much more quickly to training than muscles can to strength training. This isn't the case for everybody, however. Some animals literally do nothing. These animals "survive at a minimal chance of error by expending as little energy as possible by essentially doing nothing for as long as possible". Animals like the Python and the Three-Toed sloth spend extremely low energy on locomotion and stay still for a large part of their lives. On the other hand, newly born Penguin chicks and House Wrens more than double their resting oxygen consumption when it comes to digestion - bigger, better, stronger - fast.
The representation of nothingness and a number, 'zero' is an enigma in itself. It is hard to imagine the world where there was no representation of nothingness. For example, if I have 3 apples and I give them away, how many apples am I left with? Try answering that with something other than, but equivalent to zero. I could argue that such questions would not have been asked at that time. Maybe they'd have asked, "if I give away all my apples, do I have any apples left?". The answer would be easy, "no". But in representational form, how do we fix this problem. How do I communicate in a script that I have '0' quantity left? This did not come into existence for a substantially long time after writing scripts were invented. This zero is a symbol representing nothingness or a positional placeholder. Deceptively hidden in the essence of the positional numbers, another meaning of zero is the one used for calculations. The western civilizations missed it due to a comedy of too many errors. They did not believe that a void could exist. "Nature abhors a vacuum" - this Aristotlean maxim was their north pole. When voids didn't exist, then there was no place for a number to represent that. Its invention is even more recent and was put to good and possibly first use by an Indian astronomer Brahmagupta. He detached it from the real world of geometrical shapes and brought into the realm of abstract mathematics. That exploded into a whole new set of ideas (and the negative side of the number line). "Dividing 0 by a non-zero number is easy: the result is 0. Why? Because 0 divided by 7, say, should be 'whatever number gives 0 when multiplied by 7', and 0 is the only number that fits the bill. But what is 1 divided by 0? It must be 'whatever number gives 1 when multiplied by 0'. Unfortunately, any number multiplied by 0 gives 0 not 1, so there's no such number. Division by zero is therefore, forbidden, which is why calculators put up an error message if you try it. Instead of forbidding fractions like 1 divided by 0, it is possible to release yet another irritant from Pandora's mathematical box - by defining 1 divided by 0 to be 'infinity'. Infinity is even weirder than zero;... What about 0 divided by 0? Now the problem is not the absense of suitable candidates, but an embarrassment of them. Again, 0 divided by 0 should mean, 'whatever number gives 0 when multiplied by 0'. But since that is true whatever number you use to divide 0 by, unless you're very careful, you can fall into many logical traps - the simplest such being the 'proof' that 1=2 because both equal 0 when they are divided by 0. So, 0 divided by 0 is also forbidden. Alas, 0 divided by 0 was too seductive to stay forbidden for long. It is at the heart of calculus...". Giving zero a place in mathematics seems kind of hacky. It had to be accommodated, and hence a large amount of patchwork in mathematics was done to align it with the existing numbers and their properties. It doesn't end there. Nothing seemed to have worked into the foundations of mathematics despite its inclusion at a very late stage. "Sure, everyone knew how to do sums. Using numbers wasn't the problem. The big question was what they were. You can show someone two sheep, two coins, two albatrosses, two galaxies. But can you show them two? The symbol '2'? That's a notation, not the number itself. Many cultures use a different symbol. The word 'two'? No, for the same reason: in other languages, it might be deux or zwei or futatsu. For thousands of years humans had been using numbers to great effect; suddenly a few deep thinkers realized on one had a clue what they were. An answer emerged from two different lines of thought: mathematical logic, and Fourier analysis, in which a complex waveform is represented as a combination of simple waves. These two areas converged on one idea. Sets." The answer lies in the idea of nothing (in abstract mathematical terms), the null set!
Why does a male body still have nipples? It doesn't serve any purpose (except that I am told that many men have multiple nerve endings here and that leads to increased arousal when stimulated). But, as evolution may have it, there is no burden associated with having them, even if they are non-functional. Similarly, the moment we get a painful appendix, doctors remove it by saying that it is useless. But, recent findings seem to show that it is not the case. Appendix acts as a safe house for the helpful bacteria, "providing them with a place to grow and, if necessary, enabling them to re-inoculating the gut should it lose its normal microbial inhabitants - for examples, as a result of illness." Apart from the discussion on what should be and what shouldn't be a vestigial organ in the human body, the author discusses things like the wisdom tooth and the goosebumps which seem to serve no purpose.
The theory of holes, which are essentially an absence of negative charges, was solidified by Shockley when he trumped Bardeen and Brattain in finding an explanation why the direction of current seemed to be wrong in the transistor. This, even though led to embittered relations between Shockley and others did not stop Semiconductors from becoming the workhorse of today digital industry.
Why does grass grow back when we mow its top? Unlike other plants, grass's growth does not occur at the top of mature stems, but near the ground level in an embryonic tissue called the 'meristem'. It pushes old cells upwards like squeezing out toothpaste. From the rate of growth of grass to fingernails and watching paint dry, there is a lot of research going around about different nothings.
"Noble gases are so called because, like the nobility, they do nothing." The best place to conceal something is to keep it in plain sight. A few days earlier, I and one of my roommates were discussing how some scientific evidence debunks the beliefs of the clergy. In particular, we were discussing, much around what I had been reading in this book - the big bang and the concept that time began with it and not before it and how scientists still do not make any solid claims about why the big-bang happened (except that it can happen even if the probability is infinitesimally small). We were discussing how that idea is constantly being accepted in the Church which sees an 'unmoved mover' (Aristotlean) concept of creation there. We were discussing how the religion has progressively accepted the notions of the creation of this living universe. To this, he pointed out that it is indeed true - as Darwin's theory of evolution stood against the belief of Genesis that universe was created in its present form in 7 days. The church is now pretty comfortable with that since it does not threaten the existence or notion of God. While I think that some evidence must have existed before that too and that Darwin is not to be granted this accolade, he might actually be right! Regarding noble gases, "And yet... it would be hard to make a case that any other group of elements has had a greater impact on our understanding of the universe. For example, Darwin's theory of evolution needs an Earth many millions of years old in order for it to have had time to work. Yet, the Bible placed a limit on Earth's age at a mere 6,000 years. How was this argument resolved? The answer was helium, which is generated in rocks containing uranium and thorium. When these elements undergo radioactive decay they release alpha particles, which are really just helium nuclei that easily pick up electrons to create the gas. In 1906, armed with this idea and the rate of production of alpha particles by uranium, thorium and their decay products, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy dated several rocks at up to 500 million years; Earth would have to be at least that old. (Later work with lead isotopes pinned down the age to around 4.5 billion years.)"
All in all, there seems a very interesting feature to how we've learned things. Curiosity. Curiosity is the birthplace of both Philosophy and Science. Even though we sometimes have to fight tooth and nail to prove some dogmatic notion or belief about the physical world is true or false, the emplaced notion itself was not born out of anything but a curious thought. Aristotle did not dream that earth was fixed and the universe moved around it or that there was a limit to it - but this is what he had observed and gotten curious about. "A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers". The 'what, why, when, how' are always a good place to start about anything rather than just accepting something to be true. So, what are you going to question next?