In Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing, physicist and philosopher James Owen Weatherall explores how physicists’ beliefs about nothingness have changed over several revolutionary periods. The void, Weatherall argues, is physics distilled to its bare essence. If physicists can’t agree on the properties of empty space, they won’t be able to explain the physics of planets or particles either.
Well, they haven’t so far.
Under the modern view of quantum physics, various fields pervade all of space, and particles are simply excitations, or waves, in these fields. Even in a vacuum, experiments show, fluctuating fields produce a background of transient particles and antiparticles. Does a space pulsating with gravitational waves and bubbling with particles really qualify as empty? It depends on the scientific definition of “nothing,” Weatherall argues, which may not conform to intuition. More.
Hugh Ross has offered a useful rundown of possible meaning of the term “nothing.”
Astronomer Hugh Ross, author of Why the universe is the way it is (Baker, 2008) :
“If absolute nothingness could spontaneously produce something, scientists would see new somethings arising everywhere. Instead, they see the consistent operation of the first law of thermodynamics, which says the total amount of matter and energy within the universe can neither be increased nor decreased.”
Scientists, theologians, and philosophers define nothing differently.
It can mean “a complete lack of:
2. Matter and energy;
3. Matter, energy, and the three big cosmic space dimensions (length, width and height);
4. Matter, energy, and all the cosmic space dimensions (including the six tiny space dimensions implied by string theories)
5. Matter, energy, and all the cosmic space and time dimensions;
6. Matter, energy, cosmic space and time dimensions, and created nonphysical entities;
7. Matter, energy, cosmic space and time dimensions, created nonphysical entities, and other dimensions of space and time;
8. Matter, energy, cosmic space and time dimensions, crated nonphysical entities, and other dimensions or realms-spatial, temporal, or otherwise; or
9. Anything and everything real, created or otherwise.
And he asks,
So what kind of nothingness did the universe come from? According to the space-time theorems of general relativity, not from the first five or possibly six kinds on this list. In other words, the universe could not possibly have arisen from matter, energy, and/or any of the space-time dimensions associated with them, either existing or previously existing. The reason number 6 remains open to debate is that, depending on one’s theological/philosophical perspective, created nonphysical entities may or may not be endowed with the ability to create space-time dimensions.
The space-time theorems also eliminate option number 9. The universe of matter, energy, space, and time is, in itself, an effect. Every effect is generated by a cause. Absolute nothingness – the complete lack of anything and everything – cannot be a cause or causal agent. That is ruled out by definition and also by observation. If absolute nothingness could spontaneously produce something, scientists would see new somethings arising everywhere. Instead, they see the consistent operation of the first law of thermodynamics, which says the total amount of matter and energy within the universe can neither be increased nor decreased.” (p. 130-131)
Worth keeping in mind when things get confusing.
See also: NPR: Can everything come from nothing?
That weasel word “nothing” … which “nothing” does Hawking think created everything?
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