What is Nothing?

Sometimes the easiest looking questions are scientifically the most challenging ones to answer. One such question is “What is Nothing?”

To approach the answer to this question to the most granular level, we shall dig deep into one of the most complicated, yet beautiful concepts of modern Physics, Quantum Mechanics. But before we do that, let us first understand what we are really in for.

According to me, there are four definitions of Nothing. Let us start with the first one:

In linguistic terms, Nothingness is what we cannot see, perceive, or feel. In other words, something we cannot describe with our limited sense of life.

Defining nothingness from a scientific perspective, however, can be a harder task than you think it is. Let us start with a simple example. Imagine you received a birthday present from your friends. But since your friends wanted to pull a prank, you open the box and you find “Nothing”

Technically, there are still air-molecules dancing in that box which we cannot see with our naked eyes. So how can we call it nothing? If it were “nothing” in the terms of nothingness, then we might suffocate to death at this very moment.

This takes us to the second part of our definition, that our ability to not see things with our naked eye does not necessarily eliminate their existence.

A journey to ‘Ultimate Nothingness’

In our quest of achieving the “ultimate nothingness”, let us start with the air itself because if the air is “something” more than “nothing”, then let us get rid of the air.

  • There are about 1025 or a Septillion air molecules per cubic meter in the Earth’s atmosphere right now, not even close to nothingness.

How about we create a laboratory vacuum here on Earth? That would suck out all the air molecules and create the “ultimate nothingness” for us, right?

But even with the best lab vacuum ever created, we would still be left with 5.0 x 10^­­­5 or half a million air molecules per cubic meter. To get even better than this, let us dive deep into the galactic ocean; pass the ‘inter-planetary space’, pass the ‘interstellar space’ and we will now arrive at the ‘inter-galactic space’. What about here? We should get a perfect vacuum here, right? Wrong.

Even though the intergalactic space is very empty and has no air or any other molecules, we still do have our laws of Physics and most importantly, Quantum Mechanics.

The further extension of Quantum Mechanics is the Quantum Field Theory (QFT) which provides a vital concept, an essential one to grab, before we approach our ‘ultimate nothingness’. QFT states that each particle has its own field. For e.g. an electron would have an electric field while a Photon would have a photon field. So, while we are still very far away from everything, the immensely shiny stars of all the galaxies, will still cause tons of light/electromagnetic waves to travel to the point at which we are, inviting along heaps of photons and ruining our beloved ‘ultimate nothingness’!

Is ‘Ultimate Nothingness’ even possible?

Short answer-NO.

Since, light particles or photons are to be found everywhere, their “disturbances” or “vibrations” can be experienced in the entire universe, leaving no place that we could possibly call the ‘Ultimate Nothing’

Then what is ‘Nothing’ made of?

“virtual particles”-Yes, this fancy word is what makes up all the potential ‘nothing’ area of the space. Allow me to explain. As established above, we really cannot get rid of the photon fields. And so, when these fields travel and interact with each other, they produce the “virtual particles”

The prefix “virtual” does not mean that they do not exist, but their duration of physical existence is so tiny that we cannot possibly measure it directly but can sense or judge its existence through other possible ways. They pop in and out of existence nearly simultaneously, creating a somewhat ‘foam’ of sub-atomic particles continuously interacting with each other, creating these virtual particles for an infinitesimally small period of time until they disappear into nothingness again.

There are several ways to visualize this phenomenon but the easiest one is to see the foam on a particularly fizzy soft drink. You would see bubbles of carbon dioxide appearing and disappearing in an ever-changing way. For this reason, the population/collection of these virtual particles are what scientists call the “Quantum Foam”

This is what makes the most of the “Nothing” that we think is nothing but in reality is something!

The phenomenon of “Quantum Foam” was practically proven through the very basic principles of Electromagnetism. Since any spinning charged particle creates a magnetic field, an electron has one too.

When the theoretic magnetic field of an electron was compared to the measured value of the magnetic field of an electron, a difference of 0.1% was found between the values. The measured value came out to be exactly 0.1% lesser than what was actually expected from the calculations. That tiny bit of loss to the electron’s magnetic field, proves the existence of “Quantum Foam”. 

So, while Virtual Particles cannot be directly measured, the measurable change that they cause to the physical quantities like mass or electric force proves their existence.

Thus, the space is not so empty as it seems to us and is actually quite busy on the sub-atomic level.

Even nothing is something!

(Visualization of a quantum field theory calculation showing virtual particles in the quantum vacuum. Even in empty space, this vacuum energy is non-zero. As particle-antiparticle pairs pop in-and-out of existence, they can interact with real particles like electrons or photons, leaving signatures imprinted on the real particles that are potentially observable) (source: Forbes)

Isn’t there any way to reach the ‘Ultimate Nothingness’?

YES! there is!

If you could possibly escape all Laws of Nature, all laws of Physics, and somehow, get out of this universe, you will theoretically go into nothingness!
This takes us to our third definition. Any place beyond this universe is what we can finally call the “Ultimate Nothingness” as we do not really know what exactly will be beyond our universe and our “limited” laws of Physics confine us to defining things that are in our universe only!
There are several debates amongst the scientific communities about what is or what will be beyond our universe but until these debates are settled, we can continue to call it the “Ultimate Nothingness”.

But wait! There is more:

Last but not the least, it is now time for the fourth and last definition of ‘Nothing’.

Sometimes, a void of feelings can occur in us, where the traumas of life suck the life out of us . And at that point in time, everything feels empty and we feel “Nothing”

Here is where the philosophical me jumps in. What if maybe, just maybe, this nothingness inside of us is the real answer? What if the inside of this nothingness lies the answer to what is beyond our universe? Maybe something inside of us that we cannot possibly measure or observe will lead us to that “Ultimate Nothingness” or Maybe this ultimate nothingness is nothing but the “complete everything”, the creator itself calling for its creation by creating this void amongst us; who knows what lies beyond………

Author: Jawwad-Ul-Gohar (Space Science 08)

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