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What constitutes nothingness? The answer could drive you insane

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing writer

This is a story about nothing.

“What is nothing?” asks the monthly science magazine Newton (June) — a question maybe best answered with silence. But silence itself is something. Everything is something — in which case nothing is nothing. Why not, therefore, banish it from language? Imagine the void, if we did. Communicating without “nothing” would be like calculating without zero.

The ancients did, in fact, calculate without zero. Zero as we know it today, Newton explains, came into being in fourth-century India. The engineering feats and astronomical observations of pre-zero antiquity are the more mystifying given the primitive mathematics behind them. Zero is nothing. Is it? Really? Maybe not. Add (roughly) 80 zeroes to the numeral 1 and you get (roughly) the number of atoms in the observable universe. If zero is nothing, it’s a very potent nothingness.

Zero aside, nothingness beguiled the ancients. Buddhists in meditation merged with it, seeing in it the reality underlying material illusion. Greek philosophers probed and prodded it with reason. Two main currents of thought were led respectively by Democritus (460-370 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).

Democritus was an atomist before his time. All matter, he said, was composed of atoms moving in space, which was nothingness. Aristotle denied both atoms and nothingness. His four elements were earth, air, fire and water. Separately and in combination, they formed everything and filled everything. Nothingness? There was no place for it.

Aristotle’s ghost dominated Western thought for 2,000 years. Medieval Christendom was Aristotelian. Democritus, known as the “laughing philosopher” for his laughter at human folly, had the last laugh. Modernity is atomistic.

Still, Democritus’ atoms are not ours. His were solid. Ours, like his the building blocks of all matter, are, unlike his, vastly empty. Magnify in your mind, suggests Newton, an atomic nucleus to the size of a soccer ball. The electrons orbiting it are 10 kilometers distant. That’s 10 kilometers of space, vacuum, nothingness. An atom is 99.9 percent nothing. Everything is 99.9 percent nothing.

So what? Who cares? True, there are more pressing concerns. A pandemic, still active, has killed nearly 400,000 worldwide. The global economy is shattered. In Japan, children are back in school after three months away — the older ones to study, among other things, the nature of the universe. The more we learn about it, the more mysterious it grows. That in itself is mysterious.

Sanity is generally held to hinge on a grasp of reality. The sane are said to live, more or less comfortably, in, with and according to reality; the insane, to have spliced their bond with it.

Insanity is given various origins — unhappy childhood, illness, persecution, power, stress and so on. Strangely neglected in this regard is a simple failure to understand reality. Who does understand reality? Newton’s romp through the surrealism of modern physics is an entertaining and, as these things go, vaguely comprehensible layman’s guide to “reality” as our age conceives it. What is it, though, that we vaguely comprehend? This, for one thing: Unless you’re a mathematical physicist of the highest caliber and of very rare intelligence, you don’t and never will understand reality. In short: You’re insane.

We’re insane — almost all of us. Insanity is the rule; sanity, numerically insignificant. Sanity, roughly speaking, is to insanity what an atom’s solidity is to the atom’s nothingness: 0.1 percent. No wonder things are awry.

We’re not the first to live with a universe inaccessible to common sense. Newton reminds us of the famous paradox of the Greek philosopher Zeno (circa 495-430 B.C.) to the effect that you can never get from where you are to where you’re going because first you must halve the distance, then halve it again, and again, and so on into infinity.

How many of Zeno’s contemporaries lost sleep over that is not known; probably not many. It’s different now, when everyone is educated enough to know that reality is not as we perceive it, yet not smart enough to know what it is instead. What is it? Newton takes us by the hand and shows us around a bit.

The most superficial survey of 20th-century physics plunges us into absurdity. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is the name most commonly associated with this. His 1905 theory of general relativity, positing time accelerated by motion, space-time warped by gravity and mass convertible to energy, was so bafflingly mysterious that only three people, it was said, understood it — at which British physicist Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), whose observations confirmed the theory in 1919, later quipped, “I am trying to think who the third person is.”

Not me. Probably not you either. And yet Einstein’s universe exerts its pull on us. It has its claims on us. How are those claims to be answered?

Scarcely less significant than Einstein as an illuminator, or shaper, of that universe is physicist Paul Dirac (1902-84). Nothing was of special interest to him, Newton explains. Dirac’s nothingness — his vacuum — is as pregnant in its way as the Buddhist void, or the Greek primordial Chaos. Dirac’s vacuum is empty of things but full of electromagnetic fields of force — “like ripples on water,” says Newton, not very helpfully.

This is the verge of the abyss. Beyond lies anti-matter, dark matter, dark energy, things and forces too numerous to mention and too mysterious to contemplate. The uninitiated mind draws back, awed and horrified.

We must, it seems, choose. Reality, or unreality? Sanity, or insanity? Reality and sanity are in Einstein’s universe, or Dirac’s, or Stephen Hawking’s — to mention only the best-known of those whose genius gains them entry beyond limits that, in effect, make our choice for us by simply barring our way.

They confine us, maybe for our own good, to the unreality and insanity of the more or less comprehensible but, of course, quite illusory universe that most of us do in fact inhabit. Here we raise our families, earn our livings, elect and depose our leaders, bemoan the state of things, hope for better to come and preserve, as best we can, our sanity, which is really insanity but passes among us for sanity because it’s all we can cope with, true sanity being hopelessly beyond us.

“What is nothing?” Maybe silence is the best answer after all.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book, now on sale, is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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