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What Is Space?

Ask a group of physicists and philosophers to define “space” and you will likely be stuck in a long discussion that involves deep-sounding but meaningless word combinations such as “the very fabric of space-time itself is a physical manifestation of quantum entropy concepts woven together by the universal nature of location.” On second thought, maybe you should avoid starting deep conversations between philosophers and physicists.

Is space just an infinite emptiness that underlies everything? Or is it the emptiness between things? What if space is neither of these but is a physical thing that can slosh around, like a bathtub full of water?

It turns out that the nature of space itself is one of the biggest and strangest mysteries in the universe. So get ready, because things are about to get ... spacey.

Space, It’s a Thing

Like many deep questions, the question of what space is sounds like a simple one at first. But if you challenge your intuition and reexamine the question, you discover that a clear answer is hard to find.

Most people imagine that space is just the emptiness in which things happen, like a big empty warehouse or a theater stage on which the events of the universe play out. In this view, space is literally the lack of stuff. It is a void that sits there waiting to be filled, as in “I saved space for dessert” or “I found a great parking space.”

If you follow this notion, then space is something that can exist by itself without any matter to fill it. For example, if you imagine that the universe has a finite amount of matter in it, you could imagine traveling so far that you reach a point beyond which there is no more stuff and all the matter in the universe is behind you.1 You would be facing pure empty space, and beyond that, space might extend out to infinity. In this view, space is the emptiness that stretches out forever.

Could Such a Thing Exist?

That picture of space is reasonable and seems to fit with our experience. But one lesson of history is that anytime we think something is obviously true (e.g., the Earth is flat, or eating a lot of Girl Scout cookies is good for you), we should be skeptical and take a step back to examine it carefully. More than that, we should consider radically different explanations that also describe the same experience. Maybe there are theories we haven’t thought of. Or maybe there are related theories where our experience of the universe is just one weird example. Sometimes the hard part is identifying our assumptions, especially when they seem natural and straightforward.

In this case, there are other reasonable-sounding ideas for what space could be. What if space can’t exist without matter—what if it’s nothing more than the relationship between matter? In this view, you can’t have pure “empty space” because the idea of any space at all beyond the last piece of matter doesn’t make any sense. For example, you can’t measure the distance between two particles if you don’t

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