absolutely nothing

I few days I was reading from George Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Places1, or rather reading is not quite the right word, Perec is an odd writer and the book is more something to dip into than to read in any concerted fashion.

Perec is writing about spaces without function and says:

How does one think of nothing? How to think of nothing without automatically putting something round that nothing, so turning it into a hole, into which one will hasten to put something, an activity, a function, a destiby, a gaze, a need, a lack, a surplus …?

This reminded me of another book, Edward Casey’s The Fate of Place2. Casey surveys various creation myths and finds that while at forst glance many seem to have a creation ex nihilo, in all cases the emptiness, the void is not so empty, either bounded, or filled with chaotic churning, unformed things. There is no empty space.

These myths are about the feelings and conceptions of people and tell us somehting deep about our inability to capture an essence of nothingness, just as Perec struggles. The concept of the number zero eluded (or appalled) the Greeks and the idea of the empty set causes problems for many students, perhaps only made palitable by the curly brackets surrounding the emptiness {} … “putting something round that nothing“.

They say “nature abhors a vaccum”, although I guess one wonders whether it is just people who abhor it. One of the surest forms of torture is sensory deprivation.

The role of the void in physics has changed over the years. From being simply the empty gap between things. 19th century scientists populated it with electromagnetic and gravitational fields – the void became the medium, a material internet through which forces rippled.

In Einstein’s General Relativity, space is no longer the medium through which gravity is transmitted, but instead it is the distortions of space-time that define matter itself. Space is not filled with other things, it is the things.

However, in Quantum Mechanics we find a world that is rather like the voids of those reation myths, empty space forever filled with zero-point energy. And in the emptiness particles and anti-particles constantly appearing and anihilating one another; a boiling broth not still waters.

Most strange, when empty space is bounded, the very walls are sucked in by an extra emptiness. The bundaries mean that certain modes of vibration of the space between the walls are not possible – like a guitar string that will only play certain harmonics – and those missing vibrations cause missing energy.

So, when Perec puts “something round that nothing” he in fact makes it less than it was before.

  1. George Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Places , (tr. John Sturrock), Penguin, 1997. ISBN 0-14-018986[back]
  2. Edward Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, University of California Press, 1998. ISBN 0-520-21649-0[back]