Is there such a thing as nothing?


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One of our avid readers commented upon an email that he once sent Stephen Hawking.  His email to us was:

I once asked Professor Hawking via e-mail  -- "was there ever such a thing as nothing."

I got an answer. " No" Maybe an aide sent the reply. I will never know. Brilliant dude. Thx for the info on the broadcasts


Also see

Science Professor Hawking to come to Waterloo summer 2010 

Hawking's mail/email is sorted by a long time aide, so who knows who gave the response, but it's an interesting question.

The Scots give a lesson about their great game of golf by noting that there cannot be a fairway without some rough.

The size and shape of the universe is still under investigation.  It is doubtful that the universe is infinite for a lot of reasons.  Since nothing implies something, is the reverse true?  Does matter and energy imply that in a finite universe there is nothing beyond?

The well known Pathagorean mathematician Archytas, who was a friend of Plato argued that the universe must be infinite.  His reasoning was typical of many Greek arguments.  He posed the question in terms of a finite universe and tried to develop a contradiction to obtain the truth.

He postulated that if the universe was finite, you could walk up to the boundary and stick your hand out creating a new 'edge'  Repeating this indefinitely would imply an infinite universe.

Of course the argument is flawed, but clever none the less.  It may be that the universe goes on forever, but most experts emphatically reject that due to the serious difficulties of a universe with infinite matter.  Notice that we cannot even use the phrase 'an infinite universe filled with matter and energy'  Filling something infinite implies it has a boundary and that does not play.

It's a question for cosmologists like Hawking to consider.  I'm not sure they spend a lot of time on it as they are interested in what they can learn about the shape of the universe. 

Infinity is very difficult to discuss.  It is gingerly handled in Science and Mathematics.  Where it is used and how are at the heart of most difficult problems.  There are different types of infinity too.  For example countable and uncountable.

Although the concept of zero escaped us until it was brought to the west from the Muslim world, it is intimately tied to infinity.  Brought in to our mathematics as a placeholder, it also has to be handled carefully in equations and scientific theories.

To illustrate how our brain can fool us about things like size and shape, inside and outside, we direct you to the following video:

It takes some time to load, but it's worth the wait.

What it shows is a Klein Bottle being formed that has no inside and no outside.  Study the animation carefully.  Eventually it will 'morph' itself into a Moebius Strip that has only one edge and one side.

The study of objects like this is called Topology and recently there was a major breakthrough in the solution to Poincaire's Conjecture, which may lead to further insights about the 'shape' of our universe.

Klein Bottle and Moebius Strip


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Monday, February 08, 2010