Todd Duncan: Glimpses of Wonder

Thinking About Nothing

In my astronomy class the other day, we mostly talked about nothing, yet we were far from silent. There is a deep richness to the concept of nothing that generates an interesting and lively discussion. How can we truly understand the “something” that is our universe without considering other ways it could have been, and even the possibility that it might not have been at all?

To begin reaching our thoughts toward the concept of nothing, imagine taking away all the obvious physical objects around us. In my mind’s eye, every chair, table, computer, book, and student vanishes from the classroom. That was easy. Now I take away the things I don’t see but know are present: air molecules, dust, perhaps a tiny spider or two hiding in a corner of the ceiling. Stretching my awareness a little further, I remove all forms of electromagnetic radiation, including the colors of visible light, infrared, and UV, as well as my cell phone signal and radio waves from around the universe. I also remove the even less familiar cosmic rays, neutrinos, and dark matter particles streaming unnoticed through my body right now, along with gravity waves and any other forms of energy as yet unknown to human awareness.

It seems as if I’m making progress. I’m now picturing a dark, empty space with nothing to break up the monotony of emptiness. But I still have a long way to go to reach true nothingness. I try taking away the empty space that is my first approximation to nothing. Even the fact of space having three dimensions (or however many it actually has) is certainly something. Life would be very different if we lived in a two-dimensional world, for example.

My own thoughts and feelings must go away as well. This means I have to remove from existence the very capacity I’m using to try and imagine nothingness. And of course, the laws of nature must be banished: the one that makes sure energy is conserved and the one that sets the strength of gravity and the speed of light. Even the one ensuring that after repeated washings and dryings you will be left with an odd number of socks!

I’m no longer feeling so confident about my progress toward nothingness. Whenever I think I’m getting close, I realize that I’m trying to imagine a moment in time when nothing existed. But time itself is something. And if I somehow found a way around this paradox, I’d still be stuck with the dilemma of origins. However I contort my mind to understand how “something” can arise from “nothing,” I always end up with an image of the present cosmos arising from something else that is not completely nothing. I can’t seem to rid my mental image of concepts like time, space, and the laws of physics. Even the very concept of nothing is itself something.

So is there any value in putting ourselves through these mental gymnastics only to return to the same apparently impenetrable paradox with which we began? I think the answer is yes—because it sheds light on the paradoxes that abound in everyday life. It’s helpful to occasionally ponder questions that make no sense, if only as a reminder that existence itself makes no sense in any conventional way of thinking. When we remember that existence is a paradox at its core, and recognize the puzzles of everyday life as threads emerging from this core mystery, they become a little less troublesome. The next time you’re feeling exasperated by some infuriating and inexplicable action of a friend, co-worker, or politician, remember that these people are also threads of the universe expressed in human form. They embody tiny parts of exactly the mystery we’ve been wrestling with: why anything exists at all. So we can relax a little, let it be, and savor the mystery.

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