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nothing of the vacuum of science

in the "age of science," attitudes toward nothingness--what the ancients called the void and what is now referred to as the vacuum--have undergone a dramatic shift. beginning with Galileo, who made empty space the arena of reality, modern physicists have gradually raised the status of nothing. today many physicists believe that nothingness is the foundation of everything, not just the arena in which matter resides but the substrate from which matter is actually constructed. as physicists envision the universe now, everything that exists is ultimately just a complex enfolding of the underlying substrate of empty space. this vision presents the universe, as English physicist Paul Davies has summed it up, as "nothing but structured nothingness." indeed, it might be said that one way of characterizing the history of modern physics is the gradual rise in the status of nothing from anathema to supreme principle. ...

Galileo would complete this revolution by making empty space the foundation of his world-picture, the neutral background against which the motion of matter was mechanistically played out. in the Newtonian world-picture that was the crowning achievement of the scientific revolution, empty space shares equal billing with matter and force as one of the three fundamental pillars of reality.

with the development of 20th-century physics, the status of empty space would rise even higher, eventually eclipsing matter and force to stand alone as the ultimate foundation of all that is. ... physicists now believe that everything in our universe--every speck of matter and every active force--arose from the nothingness of empty space. one of the most important stories of modern science has been the gradual folding of more and more elements of our world-picture into the fabric of space. Einstein began the process, inadvertently it must be said, by revealing with his general theory of relativity that gravity could be understood as a byproduct of the underlying curvature of space. unlike Newton, for whom gravity remained the ultimate mystery, Einstein's theory places the origin of this fundamental force in the architecture of the void. that something as powerful as gravity--the force which holds our planet in orbit around the sun and our sun in orbit around the galaxy--could be a byproduct of empty space seems to defy reason.

the equations of general relativity even allow for the existence of empty universes: vast expanses of space and time devoid of matter and energy. physicists refer to these as "vacuum" universes. such a world would be Augustine's nightmare, a pure and purposeless void, in the most profound sense. but the pure void of general relativity is itself an abstraction; physicists have since discovered that the vacuum is far from empty.

that other great pillar of 20th-century physics, quantum mechanics, showed us that the vacuum is teaming with "virtual" particles, ephemeral ghosts of ordinary matter which constitute a seemingly infinite background of energy that some people hope will one day provide the solution to all our energy needs. though such a prospect is highly contentious (most physicists reject the idea outright), there is no doubt that the vacuum has continually surpassed physicists' expectations; every time they think they have found nothing, it has turned out to be a very complex something. today it looks as if Aristotle might well get the last laugh and that a true vacuum, a genuine nothingness, is little more than an illusion. the nothingness of space seems to encode not only gravity but also all the other fundamental forces physicists recognize. the unofficial goal of physics today is indeed to find a unified theory which would integrate general relativity and quantum theory into a single mathematical framework, enfolding everything into the fabric of pure space. the current leading contender is string theory, which describes matter as microscopic strings undulating in six infinitesimal dimensions of space, themselves embedded within the four cosmological dimensions that relativity describes.

- based on a text by Margaret Wertheim


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