MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Professor John D Barrow

Today we’re going to hear lots about nothing, I fear. Those of you who attended Robin Wilson’s talk a few months ago about zero in mathematics will have heard about that side of the story and so I won’t talk in very much detail about that. If you want to go and learn more than you ever wanted to know about that aspect of nothing, then you should take a look at my book from a few years ago which was called The Book of Nothing! The curious thing about nothing is that it is one of those ideas that induces feelings of nausea and panic and boredom simultaneously. It’s something of a pivotal idea in all sorts of different areas of human thinking, and I’m going to try today to touch on some of those areas to show you how the idea of nothing is rather more subtle and was rather more important and pivotal in all sorts of ways of thinking about the world. Philosophers tied themselves in knots thousands of years ago wondering how it could be that nothing could be something, and in the West at least, that was a considerable impediment to developing a coherent idea about nothing, developing mathematics which included a zero. In physics and mathematics, the situation is more predictable, but literature, art and music, all have facets of nothingness. Theologians were always worried about trying to create the world out of nothing, or not, and cosmologists, well, they’re interested in whether the world might disappear back in to nothing.

Let’s start with the mathematical side of things. If you were to write down 3 strokes – 111 – and you were to talk to a Roman centurion, they would imagine that this was the number 3, but if you talk to somebody here, 111 means a hundred and eleven. But if you talk to the wrong sort of computer scientist, who works in binary, 111 means something different altogether, so it means one, plus two to the one, plus two squared times one. So if you use

And so zero was in effect invented for aesthetic reasons to complete the picture. but never invented the wheel. so they counted the number of digits feet and their fingers originally. It’s a rather sophisticated idea. horizontally. At the top you would see lots of pictures from different glyphs. and was able to see some of the Mayan glyphs and old cities there – an extraordinary culture that developed mathematics to a relatively sophisticated level. in November for a couple of weeks. but on the other hand. and the position of the marks you make carries some meaning. as you might call it. What’s curious – they have a place value system in a sense. What they would then do was to add a number alongside a rather exotic picture of a creature. Their way of representing numbers was almost like us thinking in terms of degrees. The Babylonians weren’t the only people to think of zero. It wasn’t too clear what the number was. a great culture. they simply left a space on the tablet. two dots. So the number 400 would be denoted by the dot. instead of having tens. they would have multiples of 60. what we would call a zero. and a strange shell-like symbol. you would keep track of what we would call units.a base two arithmetic. was the Mayans. 60 minutes to the hour – and of angular measure – degrees. which was representing the number being shown. so they sat in particular positions. in rows. into Mexico. minutes and seconds of arc. you have a stylus of a particular shape. I had the great privilege to go the Mayan Riviera. if they didn’t have a symbol for zero. you can represent it vertically. so when they created the artistic work on the glyph. they had a gap in the ornamentation. what we’ve derived from the Babylonian system is our measure of keeping time – 60 seconds to the minute. it wasn’t used by the Ancient Greeks. The Babylonians used a system which combined a base 10 with a base 60. 111 means something different to what it means if you use base 10. It wasn’t used by the Egyptians. they had multiples of 60 times 60. So inclined marks of the stylus were used to indicate an empty slot in the register. and then they would have the rest. so instead of having hundreds. but that could create an ambiguity. . What the Mayans did was to produce images of numbers. For a long period of time. The other culture that developed a system that needed to use a zero. and then they had a base 20 system rather than 10. All this may sound rather remote. but very mysterious. In the first row. it wasn’t used by the Romans. But once you start to record numbers. like the Babylonians did. as it were. which represented zero. This idea of the position of a numeral having a meaning was something that was introduced originally by the Sumerians and the Babylonians. minutes and seconds of arc.

or for the zero. were dying out. In Indian poetry. So . you’ll see women’s beauty is extolled in the same language. and this entire way of doing mathematics came to Europe. Nobody seems to quite know why they did. From this. In slightly older English. For the Babylonians. by way of the Arab cultures in the early Middle Ages. because of their philosophical views.Babylonians finally got round to introducing their explicit zero around 500BC. and the mathematical ideas that if you multiply something by zero. going all the way down to the more abstract notions about emptiness. nothing. so if you said that a gentleman was a cipher in his own household. All these ideas were present in early Indian arithmetic and mathematics. We’re familiar today with the words zero and cipher. as you know. they used the same numerals that we use today. then everything collapses and you can prove any statement. because of their philosophical views about nothing. and ultimately to us. The Mayans. you get zero. just before William the Conqueror came along. The other great culture that developed the zero in the form that we know it is the Indian tradition. but a cipher was just a nonentity. you meant that he was a zero presence. were much more mystical. never had a zero symbol. and nor did the Romans. the zero symbol was just a gap in the register. The Indians of course. very comfortable with these ideas. but for the Indians had basic words which were used for the void. The Greeks. We tend to use it as meaning a code of some sort. The early Indians developed mathematics and geometry in a sophisticated way using very nice notation. you get infinity. there’s a usage of the word cipher rather different to how we use it today. They used the decimal system. and so what you find in Indian culture is not just a zero symbol. rather like mathematics of generating dots and zeros. All these logical problems about whether it was an illegal move to regard nothing as something made them very reluctant to introduce the idea of zero as a formal element in logical argument. because if you introduce one false element. What’s interesting about the Indian conception is it does something that really the Greeks were unable to do. and even if you divide by zero. you generate all the concepts that we’re now familiar with about nonexistence and the void and things being worthless and having no value. or for that red dot on the woman’s forehead. they weren’t necessarily conquered completely by the Spaniards in any way. a nation of accountants and astronomers. but the whole panoply of interconnections of the words for zero with nothingness and the void and the vacuum that we’re familiar with. much more conversant with the concept of nothingness and non-being.

and all the paradoxes revolve around the idea that nothing might be something. you’ll find constant word play and use of this idea of nothing. The interesting message is the way that the philosophical climate in India was conducive to the development of the mathematical idea of zero. with these sorts of paradoxes. hence Much Ado About Nothing. you can always say that you were merely exhibiting these linguistic paradoxes to bring the whole idea into disrepute. there was a time when. which had a sort of theological element. for philosophical and religious reasons. Galileo did away with this whole idea of thinking that just by studying what people said long ago. The whole tradition that there are certain paradoxes about nothingness and zero began even with some of the early Greeks like Zeno. nothingness and the void was something that was anathema – this was characteristic of the world without God.these two terms have come to have slightly different meanings. was that there was something that we might now in the press regard as the moral vacuum. it was something where there were no morals. so in the early 1500s. up to the time of Shakespeare or so. So the world of nothingness and the vacuum. And so if you wanted to talk about nothing. was there was a great tradition of word play and linguistic paradoxes about nothing. There was something of an insurance element in this. as it were. you’ll find that he’s constantly using this idea of nothing being something. because if someone challenges you for propagating heretical ideas about nothing and the vacuum. This whole period of thinking that you could learn something about nothingness and the vacuum and the void just by playing games with linguistic paradoxes really went on right up until Galileo came along. In the Jewish tradition. was something without god. Shakespeare really did it better than anybody. if you like. where humanity wouldn’t go. you’ll find a whole literature of this nihil paradox type game. you might learn something about the vacuum. nothing is what is not. Countless writers played this game. and therefore the early Christian tradition. a heresy. and he replaced it by . it’s a safe way to talk about it. One of the things of a non-mathematical sort that are rather interesting about European and certainly English culture in the early Middle Ages. If you look through Lear and other plays. This was not something that you wanted to pursue – quite different from the Indian tradition. The other ingredient of it. before the world was made. and we still see them in language today. and if you look through his plays. by creating linguistic paradoxes. in Shakespeare’s terms. the idea of nothingness or vacuum was something of a forbidden idea.

that’s 273 seconds of silence. lots of different mathematical systems. and all the possible games of chess are like all the truths and theorems that can be proved using that system. and the empty set is the set that doesn’t have any members. in the toy box. then you have what we denote by our zero symbol. then the symbol that doesn’t change your A. mathematicians realised that there wasn’t one mathematics – counting. collections of axioms. I want to complete what one might say about mathematics by telling you about something that developed after the ordinary idea of zero and counting. if you wish. Euclidian ones . but mathematics was made of all sorts of mathematical systems. And the musician John Cage.real experiments. the idea is completely different. which is more serious. . There’s something terribly unoriginal about these sort of works. that corresponds to zero. And the other matter of silence in music. A set’s just a collection of things. which is what we normally call one.and you specify the rules of the game. Every system of logic and mathematics has an operation. While all sorts of the arts are fascinated by nothingness and the void. the absolute zero of sound. is the whole matter of timing in music. rather like chess or drafts. You specify what the objects are – whether they’re lines or points or symbols . which are absolutely crucial for determining the structure and the effect. as even Galileo believed. By the time we got to the 19 th Century. so there is an infinite number of zeros or versions of that concept. then if you have a collection of symbols and just the operation of addition. The nearest to the original idea of zero in mathematics is something that’s known to mathematicians as the empty set. for some reason they all have a rectangular frame – you never see pictures that have an elliptical or asymmetrically shaped frame. and although the word might be the same for each system. there are countless works of art around the world that look like blank canvases. the silences between the notes. So if your zero is something that you do to the objects in your system which doesn’t change them. but if you had a system where only multiplication is defined. but they’re different. experts can talk to us at great length. What this means is that each system has its own zero. a collection of cars in your garage. with his 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. There were different geometries – non-Euclidian ones.different arithmetics. geometry and so on – and these were the thoughts of god and this was the way the world worked.

the empty set. there still had to be a form corresponding to that. So the number two is defined to be the empty set and the set which contains the empty set. so there is no possibility of there being nothing at all. The first was a Greek object – sometimes it’s called the Water Catcher. with your finger off the top so it fills up. then lots of holes were made in it. and the set containing the empty set. ancient philosophers had all sorts of great ideas about the vacuum on which an awful lot rested because they were pivotal ideas in great philosophical systems. but if you take your finger off the top. I warned you that it was Galileo who really taught us about taking the vacuum seriously experimentally. The other great paradigm that began really with Lucretius was the idea of just having two plates. For Plato. You put them very close together. particularly for early Greek philosophers. which is defined as part of arithmetic. the water will. because for Plato. the whole idea of a vacuum. This understanding of why the object behaved in this way was a problem that took thousands of years to solve. you define what we normally call zero just to be the empty set. of having nothing. This would be made out of metal. and there were all sorts of extraordinary ideas about why this object behaved as it did. How do you do that? Well. you can generate everything. You can imagine what happens if you put this in water. If you take it empty. so even if there was nothing here. and you’ll define two to be the set that contains the object zero. and so on with three. does a vacuum form instantaneously or not? Why is that interesting? Well. but if you take your finger off. and you’ll define by the number one the set which has got a single member.This is quite different from the numerical zero. and then you ask when you separate them. and out of that set. had a tube. So if you immerse it in water. So you can define all the numbers just in terms of the empty set. the water will all come out of the holes. then the water doesn’t come out of the holes. the set containing the empty set. the water won’t come in. and you put your finger on the top and you immerse it in the water. Well. later of glass. The idea of a physical vacuum is something that had been a tortuous question. Out of nothing. The number three is defined to be the set that has these members. and so on forever. Aristotle believed it was . and then you put your finger over the top and you pull it out of the water. was inconceivable. and one as members. and the set that contains the empty set. what we saw around us were just expressions of the abstract forms in some other world of ideas. maybe of metal. you can define all the numbers of arithmetic. and there were two rather crucial examples that played a role for thousands of years. So this is the set that has no members. for medieval scientists and philosophers.

So if you imagine that the world is some great finite ball. you can never have perfectly smooth surfaces. you wouldn’t be able to separate them. And if you look at the whole medieval argument about this. but it could also have made the metal collapse and squash everything out. Other people said. you don’t need two slabs at all. And this became bound up with the whole idea that it was not possible for nothing to be something. The trouble with that was. it’s worse than that. a complete vacuum. . or in the visible universe. drop it on the floor. when you looked at your water catcher. Some people were arguing that if you put two slabs together perfectly. for nothing to be part of the whole story and argumentation about the world. anywhere in the world. The celestial agent stops a vacuum ever forming in the world. And so there was a great argument then about whether the laws of nature really could have negative aspects. just take one slab. the air rushes in at exactly the right rate never to allow the vacuum to form. so actually there isn’t a perfect vacuum to start with. but there must be a fleeting moment before the air gets in when there’s a vacuum. there might be a void. it could fill it up with water. as William Burley called it. well. in that when you took your finger off. You can’t make a void. but it might be possible to have what they called extra-cosmic void. rather like Roger Penrose’s cosmic sensor that wants to stop naked singularities forming in the universe – exactly the same sort of philosophy. and at the moment when it’s in contact before it bounces. then beyond it. The next stage. so it was not possible to make a vacuum in the world. and so you don’t have to wait for the air to rush in. Why did it choose to do one thing rather than another? The celestial agent didn’t really tell you enough.impossible to create a physical vacuum. air rushes in. that’s the same process of a vacuum being replaced after a finite time by air rushing in. because there’s a sort of celestial agent. and when it bounces off. no. people say. it’s in perfect contact. When you pull them apart. And then Blasius of Parma pointed out. What Aristotle and his followers for thousands of years would have argued is that you cannot create nor have what they called intra-cosmic void. then there’s nothing between. it’s really quite sophisticated and very interesting. if they were perfectly smooth. But that’s another story. All these little experiments with the water catcher and the two strips all revolved around the question of whether it was really possible to make an intra-cosmic void. And then other people pointed out. whether there could be a law of nature that says no vacuum ever forms. the celestial agent could stop a vacuum forming in all sorts of ways. a complete vacuum.

Albert the Great. As he wandered the country. much denser. which is just the pressure times the area over which the pressure is acting. You take a long tube. you get a slightly different rise. philosophically.5 metres in our units. theologically. So this whole story about the physical vacuum had an interesting experimental. you fill it up with mercury. As Galileo and Torrichelly appreciated. But this created a whole sea change in attitude. and he obviously had a strong idea why this was so. which is its density times its volume times acceleration due to gravity. so you see what I meant by saying Galileo did away with the old way of thinking about nothing and vacuum and the void. when the tube started. what was that? Torrichelly maintained this is a perfect vacuum – I have created a vacuum here before you in the laboratory. it was completely full. but when it was stood up vertically. This was all changed in the early 1600s by Galileo and Torrichelly. that there couldn’t be infinities in the world because this was somehow a challenge to the operation of God’s actions. longer than 76 centimetres in length. and that’s equal to the force exerted by the pressure of air. Suddenly. divided by the density of mercury. It doesn’t matter what shape the tube is. If you’re a physicist. It wasn’t possible for you to say. and the acceleration due to gravity. what we call atmospheric pressure. He talked to his student and secretary. You see. Torrichelly. or the barometer that we know today. Galileo had noticed rather interesting things when farmers were pumping water in their fields. and Torrichelly picked a different. This was very mysterious. for example. his student. when there were theological statements for the first time trying to place no restrictions on the actions of God. about 10. . He created the manometer. and you get a height of 76 centimetres. The height of the mercury is given by air pressure. if you did this experiment in different places. at different heights above the Earth’s surface. the way you work out the height. who became a great scientist and mathematician himself. what happened was that a vacuum appeared. to demonstrate this effect and then understand what was going on. mercury. and so the issue was.All these arguments about whether it was possible to make a vacuum or not went on pretty much unabated until the famous event in 1277. material than water. you work out the weight of the mercury that’s pressing down. the mercury will always rise to the same level. there was nothing in it. philosophical background. the densest liquid there is. He noticed that nobody could pump water higher than a particular height. and nothing’s been allowed to get in it. and you don’t discuss the vacuum by linguistic paradoxes. You notice the areas cancel out. and then you invert it in a little jug of mercury and watch what happens. it’s an experimental issue. but you make a vacuum and you try to do things to it. It doesn’t matter what the cross-sectional shape of your tube is. The level of the mercury in the tube drops. the Paris condemnations.

Aristotle and early Judeo-Christian philosophy told you that the vacuum was something that always tried to go away. and noting that chemical reactions came to a halt if you took all the air out of a chamber. you couldn’t separate them and destroy it. as it were. and had the horses revved up. that it wasn’t just a vague idea. He then got two teams of eight horses attached to each side of the hemispheres. The most spectacular experiment of all was carried out by Otto von Guericke. because air pressure varies with altitude. and evacuating the air and watching the canary become unconscious. great showman that he was. that it’s part of . pull as you might. But this vacuum didn’t want you to destroy it. then putting the air back in again and it comes back to life. It might be a great Gresham experiment on the day of the Lord Mayor’s processionI What what Guericke did was to have two enormous bronze hemispheres made. So there began an early experimental phase of investigating the vacuum. on the mountains. Worse than that. and the hemispheres just fell apart. carried out all sorts of exotic experiments – putting canaries in tanks. seeing if magnetic fields were propagated. Robert Boyle. so if you created a vacuum inside the hemispheres. which he joined together. they couldn’t be separated. was different. What was remarkable about this experiment. Then he just went along and turned the switch and let the air in. to try and separate the hemispheres. if you made a vacuum it was always filled. They don’t do experiments like this anymore.In this country. and of course what he discovered was that the height of mercury that was raised at the top of the cathedral. and even the acceleration due to gravity. and then of course they were locked together. and they couldn’t do it. and then pumped out the air. across a vacuum. not very far away. who was the Mayor of Magdeburg. so it was unstable. Pascal was another to really complete the story. he wanted to demonstrate that the vacuum really was something. This is an era of demonstration that the vacuum is not just a vague idea. to the highest mountains that he could find. He played the game of taking Torrichelly’s type of barometers up to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral and up into the French countryside. pull in opposite directions. You can still see the hemispheres in the city museum in Munich today.

there’ll be a time difference in how long it takes you to swim 200 metres by the route where you never go against the flow. in physics and astronomy. and you can allow light to go through and come back. suppose this is a hundred metres. and where you have to against the flow and then with the flow. You have the distances equal. Well. you can manipulate it. and at the time of Maxwell and others. As the Earth moved in orbit around the Sun. This great experiment which they performed. The idea.science. the so-called ether. by introducing the idea of zero into Europe. If there was no current. along with eventually the Indo-Arab system of mathematics. You can shine a beam which gets split. it was moving through this ether. This requires rather fancy technology and very. and if the light returning is not coming back at the same moment and is slightly out of phase. and you should imagine us just sitting inside a great celestial fluid of ether. which you can measure with fantastic precision. and this gave credence and acceptance to the idea of nothing as being something. and this. What Michelson and Morley did was to set up an experiment which timed the travel of light on two different paths at right angles to each other. following Newton. there grew up a belief that the whole of the universe was filled with a mysterious fluid. to begin with. and you time yourself on these two swims. and what they did was to test whether there exists such an ether by examining what happens to the motion of light in the universe. Michelson and Morley. You would be able to detect whether there was a flow of the stream by comparing the round swim times. discerned no time travel difference for the light in the two paths. The challenge was could you identify the ether? Could you measure its existence? A famous experiment took place in 1881 by two Americans. you can send light up and back. is rather like going swimming in a river. so you think of the ether as flowing past us. and you swim a hundred metres against the flow and a hundred metres back. as Einstein predicted. really smoothed the way for the physicists and other scientists and engineers to use the idea of the vacuum without huge amounts of persecution and oppression. probably the most famous null experiment in modern physics. you should have exactly the same time to do the two trips. Moving to the 19 th century. rather like a great stream. so the zero in mathematics was relatively uncontroversial. is what you . very high precision measurement using what’s now become known as interferometer. you get interference fringes. if you do everything exactly the same each time. In many ways. Suppose you swim across to the other bank. it was the mathematicians who. Physicists took this very seriously. It eventually assumed a significant role in accountancy and mathematical science in Europe.

It’s situations like that that are much studied in physics. . our picture of what happens very close to the beginning of the universe. then he defined the vacuum to be what is left after everything that can be removed is removed. it could go over the top and come to rest. there’s some energy which can be given out. There must always be some residual zero point energy. it’s like a marble at the bottom of a goldfish bowl. But this idea of defining the vacuum simply to be the lowest energy state of a system has all sorts of rather unusual consequences. you would find a time travel difference. and you nudge it a little bit. it’ll roll one side or the other. it’ll wobble a bit and come back to rest. the vacuum in physics changed its character quite extraordinarily. you might go from one quite high energy minima to one that’s much lower. If there had been ether. Quantum mechanics doesn’t allow us to say what the position in motion is with perfect accuracy of every particle and every state of matter in the world. which I’ve talked about on several occasions. so there can be many vacuum states of a system. so if you hit a system very hard. If you think of the state of some physical situation being measured by the level of its energy as you change some parameter of its configuration. they’re all so-called local vacuums. In the second case. It’s possible to do things to physical systems that make them change from one vacuum state to another. and when you do that. If you disturb it a little bit. The inflationary universe theory. just like there’s always something sitting at the bottom of your bag that somehow you can never get rid of. universes which just contain waves of gravity. They can all have the same energy or some can be of lower energy than others. Einstein then developed the general theory of relativity which contains the idea that there can be so-called vacuum universes. There can exist many vacuum states.should see if there is no ether. What is left after everything that can be removed is removed is not necessarily anything at all in our ordinary understanding of the word. but if you try to put it at the peaks of one of the hills. So if you have a region or a container. Similarly. Maxwell was the first person to make a rather precise and clever statement about what is meant by the vacuum in physics. What the idea of the vacuum has been become in modern physics is that it’s just the lowest energy state that a system can be in. After that. then the stable situations are where the energy forms are minimum locally. and so it is not possible in quantum mechanics to say that a region contains nothing at all. they don’t contain any material at all. This experiment pretty much did away with the idea that there was this extraordinary ethereal fluid that we were moving through.

where there are many different minima with different levels. If the plates are just a thousandth of a millimetre apart. Hendrik Casimir. but . which may well describe what happens near the beginning of our universe. in 1948. One of the most exciting things about these different minima in particle physics. so it’s like a fly’s wing sitting on your finger. is tantamount to the idea that there can be different values of the constants of nature. something like that. One of the most spectacular experiments I think that’s been done in the last 50 or so years is something which is called the Casimir effect. proposed a beautiful experiment. only waves whose wavelengths exactly fit between the plates will be present.is based on just such an idea. and then you introduce into that vacuum two parallel metal plates. As Maxwell taught us. the lowest energy state that it could find itself rolled into. different logically consistent scenarios in different places in the universe. but in different parts of the universe. is that there are theories of high energy physics. in fact it’s seething with energy and particles coming and going. as it were. giving out lots of energy in the process. and so this means there’s more pressure pushing the plates together than pushing them apart. large and small. So what happens is that all the matter after it gets disturbed a bit and can shift and roll down into the new minimum. and that can inflate and produce a surge in the expansion of the universe. then the force is about a thousandth of a gram. our universe maybe goes from an unstable maximum down to a minimum. As a result of that inflationary process. whereby the vacuum would reveal itself. a beautiful effect. matter may have rolled in the opposite direction and may end up in a different minimum. that as the universe cools. but as the world cools a little more. a Dutch physicist. the elementary particles are in a landscape. and it relates to this idea of the quantum vacuum. whether things like quarks have mass or whether they’re massless like the photon. Outside the plates. and also how many different forces of nature there are. So having a universe where there is a non-uniqueness of the vacuum state of the universe. and so the plates should attract one another by this so-called Casimir force. other minima open up and turn out to have much lower energy values than the original one. What does different minimum mean? The minima defined the values of the constants of nature. first of all. So you can appreciate the first order of what this means is that there’s more waves outside the plates than there are in between. where there’s a single valley and all the matter sits there. It’s really tiny. the vacuum is not nothing at all. but in between the plates. Imagine that the vacuum is just a sea of waves of energy of all possible wavelengths. there are still waves of every possible wavelength. and you think what happens to all the waves. The idea is very simple.

In particle physics. If you throw it in at high energy. If you take an electron and you put it down in a vacuum. positively charged virtual electrons in the vacuum all get slightly attracted to this electron and surround it with a shield of positive charge. that you get an out of phase generation of waves between the boats. so the crests of one wave match the troughs of the other. it’s just based on experience. it just sees the positive shield. that vacuum is full of particles of negative and positive electric charge. I discovered a few years ago a wonderful nautical version of this force. if you have two ships that weigh about 700 tons or so. make sure that the force there is like that. then if the boats were to come quite close together. the French Navy produced a handbook of advice to their sailors. it’s exactly the same type of effect. So if you fire in another electron. but not with quantum waves. it doesn’t interact and scatter as strongly as you might have thought. they would be pulled together and their riggings would become entwined and there would be disaster. so it’s a nautical Casimir effect. Mathematically. then a couple of small boats with 20 or 30 men will be able to overcome the force that pulls them together.easily measurable in physics. once you put the electron down. but the waves coming in and rebounding off the outside push the boats together. constant. because experience showed that once the boats which were gently swaying together got closer than about 30 or 40 yards. so it’s in effect there is no wave motion between the two boats. it doesn’t get a look at the negative charge at the centre at all. a little mathematics shows you. so the plates do indeed attract. The formula depends on planks. In fact. appearing and disappearing all the time on immeasurably short time intervals. as long as you can remove all the other sources of noise and interference and stickiness that might make the plates come together. so it varies inversely as the fourth power of the separation. you find that it’s exactly the same effect in the large. 30 or 40 yards close to one another. we’re familiar with the role of the vacuum in very subtle and sophisticated ways. and deflects rather weakly. the oppositely charged. and they whould attach lines and pull the boats apart. and one of the pieces of advice to captains is rather extraordinary. just with classical waves. so you can change the separation. and the experience was that if you had two large ships and you were sailing in a strong swell but there were not high winds. then it . Back in the 1820s. There’s no reason for the advice. If you calculate this. If it comes in with a rather low energy. the speed of light and the separation “D” of the plates. then the captain should set down small boats full of 20 or 30 men. This experiment has been done and the effect has been measured and it’s seen. just as Casimir predicted.

and the state of nothingness and void would be one without God. And so there then grew up gradually this rather tortuous tradition of asking questions of the sort that Lydness first asked. but you have a very precise way of characterising the edge. if you look at the mythologies and traditions of the world. Modern physics would probably give an off-the-cuff answer of saying something like “because nothing in unstable”. checked. or the origin of the universe. It’s like having two hard billiard balls. possibly an infinite foam. rather precisely. that you had to think about making time and space along with matter.goes right through the penetrating shield and gets a look at the full negative charge in the middle and deflects strongly. why is there something rather than nothing. it will tend just to interact with the cloth cover. This can all be measured. and you surround one with a woolly cloth cover. This is known as asymptotic freedom: as the energy becomes greater. The whole idea of there being a beginning to time and an end in time is quite an awkward idea to get your head around. and each of the bubbles in the foam behaves . the idea. the notion of a singularity in space in time. People like Aquinas were much more sophisticated in thinking about the creation of things like time and space. this would be a rather godless world of nothingness. If you throw the other ball in rather gently. It wouldn’t be a good idea to live in the bubble at the top of Torrichelly’s barometer. The Nobel Prize was given in physics this year for that discovery. but if you throw it in rather hard. which once was just rather like an expanding bubble of some sort. Gross and Politzer. the electromagnetic interaction becomes stronger. but it’s like an expanding foam of bubbles. Current astronomical observations can’t really tell us whether the world really did have an infinite past or just a finite one. then it will really bang into the ball and it will rebound strongly. but there are rather precise ways to make clear what you mean by the beginning of the universe. They realised that making a world of matter was not enough. In early Christian and Greek philosophy. In modern cosmology. and there’s an honourable tradition of grappling with this question. nobody knows why the world was created out of nothing. something that you really didn’t want to enquire too greatly into. if it was. You have no description of what’s beyond the edge. the idea of creating the world out of nothing is actually a rather rare idea. to Wilczek. an edge to space and time. The favourite picture of the universe. The idea that there’s no beginning and no end is much easier. it’s what the world was created in order to remove. as a result. you should really imagine as being replaced by not a single bubble. Lastly a few words about theological ideas. as I said. of nothingness and the void is a bad idea.

. but the whole process. It may have had a finite past and only live for a finite time in the future. all they mean is that that thing is not logically inconsistent. but that may not be the case. How do these ideas of mathematics. given the definition of triangles four and sided. the whole foam. so existence in mathematics just means logical self-consistency. it may be that one day it’ll just pop back into nothing from whence it came. but even numbers bigger than two certainly do exist. and we’re at the basement energy level. and the fact that the universe began accelerating just a few billion years again may indicate that in some sense we may be on the way to another type of vacuum state over a timescale of many billions of years.perhaps rather differently. So there is nothing illogical about unicorns. and we are just living in one of the bubbles in the foam. so four-sided triangles do not exist. All it means when you read a mathematician saying that they’ve proved an existence theorem or that a triangle of this sort exists or a counter-example to some conjecture exists. physics really come together? I think there’s an important way in which they don’t. and there may be another transition still to come. and thinking that they do can lead you to some type of confusion. But this is quite different to physical existence. After all. and you could write down a mathematical equation which described their genetic make-up. it may have gone on forever in the past. we like to think that the universe has done all the dropping downstairs that it is ever going to do. and each bubble may have just a finite age. It’s important not to confuse physical existence with mathematical existence. These ideas about the non-uniqueness of the vacuum lead to rather worrying considerations by cosmologists. We may not yet be really in the basement energy level in the universe’s true vacuum. but just because you can describe them. may have gone on forever for the future. If the world is like a series of floors. doesn’t mean that they must exist. philosophy. if the universe did appear out of nothing and the laws of physics are time symmetric. Mathematical non-existence means that things are logically inconsistent. and that would be certainly enough to guarantee physical nonexistence. and eventually gives rise to other bubbles in the foam. as we know. Mathematical existence is a rather weak thing.

© John D Barrow. Gresham College. 1 February 2005 .

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