Nothingness. It is both the beginning and the end of all creation. But what is it metaphysically and mathematically? Is empty space REALLY empty? Or is it filled with hidden forces? Forces that may have brought our universe into existence? Forces that could destroy reality as we know it?
Since antiquity, we have referred to it as “the void”, the place from which God brought the heavens and the Earth. Scientists now have their own version of this, we call it “the big bang”. But how can something come from what appears to be “nothing”? Understanding the nature of nothingness is probably the deepest and most baffling phenomena in modern science. It could explain where the universe came from and whether or not everything we know and love can turn into nothing once again. But can it really exist? What would it be like to visit? To find it we will need to look into some peculiar places, starting with outer space:
WHAT IS “NOTHING”? : THE VACUUM OF SPACE
Unfortunately, space itself isn’t exactly empty either, so we have to be careful with what we mean by this. It was Isaac Newton who first postulated that we can not assume space is nothing, that there is “something” and it influences how matter moves. In 1915, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity showed that Newton was correct, spacetime itself is a bendable fabric into which all the universe is woven. The space that fills every corner of our universe plays a constant game of tug-of-war with all the things in it, be it the planets, the stars, or an apple from a tree.
If exploring space will not give us the answer, perhaps an artificial vacuum created on terrestrial laboratories will? When we create an empty vacuum inside any container it becomes unstable, as the resulting pressure from the outside forces push on it, even to implosion if the matter outside the container is sufficient. But empty space can do more than cause solid matter to implode, it interferes with everything matter does. Even our artificial vacuum chambers are not “truly empty” when we scale down to the subatomic level. Even a completely empty vacuum is full of some degree of photon particles, quantum fluctuations, as well as tiny additional subatomic particles popping in and out of existence.
WHAT IS “NOTHING”? : SUBATOMIC SPACE
Quantum theory states that at an instant in time you cannot be absolutely sure how much energy there is. Energy can be borrowed or exchanged around very short time scales, the vacuum is a very vibrant and violent place, even though we cannot see it. It is a soup of bubbling energy. Every electron itself is surrounded by “the quantum vacuum”, a shroud that reduces the full impact of the electrical force.
If it was possible to turn off this “cloak” around the electron, you’d have turned off all the effects of the vacuum, and at the same time you’d destroy the universe, because all structure, the existence of atoms and molecules, could not be if it wasn’t for the quantum theory. Without the energy of the vacuum, the fundamental forces of nature would run out of control. Our entire universe would break apart. Empty space might be a powder keg waiting to explode. The theory of quantum mechanics predicts that empty space has enough energy to boil the universe out of existence… but it doesn’t “something” must be keeping “nothing” in check, the question is, what?
When particles are created in the quantum realm, they are created in a state that looks more like a wave than it does like a particle. When you source a particle in quantum mechanics, it results in a wave spreading out from a central point. Just like the ripples on the surface of a pond, a particle wave will spread itself across the entire ocean of outer space, the vacuum of space, and even subatomic space. This means that at every point in the universe there exist trillions upon trillions of particle waves… there is no such thing as “empty space”. The energy contained in this great rippling motion is causing the universe to inflate, pushing the galaxies further apart and accelerating expansion.
The only way we know how to explain this, is if there is something like an energy density that is pervasive in space itself. This “missing energy” accounts for what is causing the universe to expand. Physicists call it “Dark Energy”.
WHAT IS “NOTHING”? : DARK ENERGY: BEYOND SPACE
Dark energy is undetectable by many of our current instruments, however, from the rate the expansion of the universe physicists can measure how much of it is contained in a region of empty space. But when they tally that number against how much energy empty space OUGHT to have from all the particle waves and quantum effects… there is a staggering mismatch. When you calculate the energy that there should be in empty space, you get a number that is 10^120 times larger than the number we actually observe from the expansion/acceleration of the universe. There should be enough energy in space itself to boil the universe away… but we are still here. Perhaps it could be that most particle waves are
Perhaps it could be that most particle waves are canceling each other out. When a wave peak meets a wave troth, they neutralize. There may be a whole other set of yet undetected particles in the universe, each creating waves canceling out the waves from the particles we already know. This idea is called supersymmetry. Every particle has a mirror image partical. But finding any supersymmetric particle is a frustrating task, it cannot yet be confirmed by experimentation. The LHC has not yet detected any such supersymmetric particles. If they do not exist, scientists will have to explain why the energy of empty space is not tearing our universe to shreds.
But other scientists believe that the cataclysmic explosion of nothing is inevitable, and one has worked out when it might happen.
FALSE VACUUM: WILL SPACE COLLAPSE?
Max Tegmark is a cosmologist at MIT, he is deeply troubled by this phenomenon. Empty space seems relatively stable and permanent. But how can we be really sure, that empty space will be permanently stable? A rapid decay of space into a different space may sound highly unlikely, but it is not without precedence. 13.7 billion years ago, the universe shifted its fundamental properties and its temperature plummeted. Physicists call this “the big bang”.
Are we just fish who have spent our whole lives in the ocean, thinking of it as just empty space. What if one day we eventually realize that this emptiness is actually a physical substance, something that could change states should the conditions arise. What if one day it could all become steam? Or change energy states and rapidly decay into ice? Would the fish ever wonder if the change in states d lead to their deaths? In the same sense, we have also looked at our concept of empty space, and realized that it too seems to be able to freeze and kill us all.
Physicists have evidence demonstrating that even space itself can be at many different energy states, both higher or lower. We have good reason to believe that our space was in a much higher energy state during the early universe and perhaps even the kind of particles that could exist were different. We have also measured that there is an even lower energy state for space, because our space isn’t empty. Dr. Tegmark does not believe that the big bang was the last state of “cosmic freezing” that our universe will experience. His proof lies in the equations of quantum tunneling, where essentially nothing is fixed and nothing can last forever.
Quantum mechanics tell us that a particle can never be “perfectly still” in a known position, which means nothing is completely stable. If you leave an object on a shelf for a long enough amount of time, there is a chance that the quantum jiggle alone will rematerialize the object at a lower energy state closer to the ground. When a particle or object tunnels through space it can end up anywhere in the universe, as long as its energy is lower. But this phemomena could be bad news for the universe. If our universe decays into an even lower energy state, it would mean that all the current particles we know and love might not be allowed to exist. Who knows what kind of strange physics could have existed?
Just as in the big bang, when the sudden decay of empty space happens, a blast of destructive nothingness will spread through the universe at the speed of light. We would never even see it coming. It is inevitable, what is really unclear though is how long it’s going to last, as some things are more stable than others (such as atomic isotopes, which can differ in half-life by millions of years). Just because we’ve been here for 13.7 billion years doesn’t mean we’ll be around forever. Max Tegmark believes we have around 20 billion years left, depending on whether supersymmetric particles exist or not, which the LHC has so far failed to find. Without supersymmetry to stabilize empty space, it could all end in as little as 1 billion years. We come from nothing, we go back to nothing
Don’t be sad about it though. As they say in Monty Python’s Life of Brian “We come from nothing, we go back to nothing.. what have we lost?”. The new universe created out of such a collapse will certainly not be “nothing”, so where CAN we truly find “nothing”? Perhaps before the existence of our universe?
THE DILATON FIELD: WAS THERE “NOTHING” BEFORE THE BIG BANG?
Only a decade ago, astronomers confirmed what seemed impossible. Go back 13.7 billion years ago there was only darkness, then our universe exploded into existence. How could everything come from “nothing”? Physicist Gabriele Veneziano is the father or String Theory, one of the most important ideas in modern physics. He believes the big bang could not have been the beginning of everything. He believes there was something before the big bang, but the energy was very diluted and particles interacted very very weakly. He believes the same fundamental forces of nature we know today existed in the previous universe, but their strengths were much lower.
The strengths of all these forces were in the tense of what we call the “Dilaton field”. The Dilaton field filled the entire pre-universe and controlled the strength of all 4 forces. As time went on, strange things began to happen and the density of particles started increasing with interactions getting stronger and stronger. The ever growing pressure increases and interactions intensify until the universe becomes unstable and changes energy states. For Gabriele, the big bang wasn’t a beginning, it was a transition point. If he was right, we will have dispensed with this most puzzling paradox, however, not without going into an infinite regress of higher energy states for space.
Overall, we will have gotten something from nothing. Proving there was never “nothing” in the universe may not be as difficult as you think. Because if space and matter have always existed, then the big bang should have sent colossal gravitational waves rippling through them. The aftershock of those waves are still detectable today, they could potentially even allow us to look at the universe before the big bang. New spacecraft engineered for detecting gravitational waves could potentially put these models to a test, demonstrating that “nothing” does not exist and never did.
DOES “NOTHING” EVEN EXIST?
Whenever we try to imagine “nothing” we can’t help but imagine “something”.
The Ancient Greeks thought of “nothing” as a logical impossibility. The moment you think about “nothing” as a concept, it becomes “something” to be thought of. Modern scientists have spent centuries thinking about “Nothing”, and what they’ve learned proved the Greeks were right.
There may even be enough energy rippling through empty space to destroy us, entire universes may be made of it, and it is most definitely NOT “nothing”. Our universe may very well be eternal, an endless regress of “big bangs” or energy state changes with no concept of what it means to “not exist”.
“Nothing” cannot exist.