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What is nothing?

Published March 19. 2011 09:00AM

I heard an interesting conversation on the overnight show "Coast to Coast AM with George Noory." The guest was a lecturer named Dr. Quantum otherwise known as physicist and lecturer Fred Wolf who discussed the concept of time and space and light.

During the conversation, he pointed out that the theory of the big bang occurred in the middle of nothing. Noory said it's hard for him to comprehend what "nothing" is. Up to that point I never gave it a second thought, but when Noory made the statement, it occurred to me how correct he was.

"What is nothing?" Stop for a second and think about this. We have never, ever truly seen "nothing". Even what we perceive as empty space is full of atoms, sub-atomic particles, gases and other small particles including dust. While we see nothing, there is really "something" there.

A vacuum is by definition an area of space in which there is no matter. It is totally empty of anything measurable. In practice however, there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum. Even in space which is the closest approximation we have to a vacuum there are still a sparse number of hydrogen atoms floating around. Hydrogen is one of the most basic building blocks in the universe as well as the lightest of all elements. This creates very little resistance. In a vacuum there is no friction, no mass and scientists also refer to this condition as free space.

It should be pointed out though that with the advances made in quantum physics and the general belief of a theory of dark energy and dark matter as a valid substance makes the previous definition of a vacuum even more difficult to achieve since it cannot be seen or measured yet.

You may wonder how scientists know there is such a thing as dark matter or dark energy. To be honest, there is no physical evidence. No one has ever seen it or measured it. Dark energy is a hypothetical unit of energy used to explain why our universe is constantly expanding at an accelerating rate.

Take an egg out of the refrigerator or fill a balloon with water. Now throw it against a surface and observe it as it breaks. First you will notice it expands around the area of impact. All of the matter in the middle of the impact zone is accelerated away from the center of impact by force of the egg or balloon striking the surface. Note though that the "stuff" in the container splatters only a finite distance before it stops and before it stops it naturally slows down as it travels due to its interaction with friction and the atmosphere around it.

Scientists originally believed the massive explosion that was the "big bang" should have behaved the same way. As they measure light and look toward the center of the universe and then away toward the outer edges, they expected the expansion to slow down. Instead the expansion of our universe is continually accelerating.

This created gaps in their fancy equations which they needed to fill before the equations would make sense. In order to solve this problem, scientists imagined a substance called dark matter or dark energy. If this substance only affects gravity and it repels other matter instead of attracting it like gravity does, they could balance their equations.

If this substance exists, it has no mass, no appearance and does not affect any other matter or force in the universe except gravity. This is what scientists believe is forcing the acceleration of the universe and if it exists it makes up 74 percent of everything in the universe in an even uniform matter.

It can be visualized using the illustration of a beaker filled with stones (the large objects). Some may say the beaker is full, but we can add gravel in between the stones. This would be the smaller objects in the universe like atoms. We believed at one point the universe was full of atoms but then we found sub-atomic particles. This would be similar to adding sand to our beaker and filling in those gaps.

If we added water at this point it would completely fill in any remaining spaces in our beaker so there would be no more space. This is similar to what scientists believe dark energy does. The only difference is if the water was dark energy it would break the beaker and constantly push the particles of sand, gravel and stone away from each other.

So even in the most empty part of space, scientists believe dark matter fills in the gaps so to speak so that there is never really any area of the universe that is truly empty. So to imagine "nothing" really is quite difficult, but that's what was there before the Big Bang unless we change the idea of the Big Bang to being the result of a collision of some other substances that existed prior to it that reacted to each other to create the universe.

Or perhaps we are just microscopic particles on molecules of water traveling through the air after some child threw us to the ground and our time which seems eternal is the blink of the eye in this infinite sized child.

Til next time …

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