Through the Wormhole: Exploring the Existence of Nothing

Norman Byrd's picture

So what is nothing? Does it actually exist or has there always been at least some even pre-primordial something? And if something has always been there, is nothing no more than an abstract concept? "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman" explores the man's attempts to know his universe and define the idea of the existence of nothing.

One of the better features of "Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman" is the challenge it presents in each show. Take a fundamental premise and question it. In the fifth episode of Season 3, "What Is Nothing?," our Oscar-winning host asks the puzzling circumstances that surround the absence of everything, that particular state we refer to as nothing, and questions whether or not "nothing" as it is understood even exists (or hasn't, doesn't, or will not) at all.

Beginning with what appears to be the ultimate state of nothing, Freeman speaks of the biblical "void" from which God supposedly created all things, equates it with the scientific version of the creation of the cosmos (the Big Bang Theory), and questions whether or not space is actually nothing and, even it if it is, how can something -- such as the formation of the universe in which we live -- have developed from such a state. How did something come from nothing?

On a personal level, it is impossible to perceive nothing, no matter how much we concentrate on it and rid ourselves of outside stimuli. Human existence is partially the confluence of perception with the tangible and our innermost thoughts. Nothing exists as an abstract that cannot be fully experienced. And although we see and can experience space, science has increasingly provided humanity with clues that space is not the emptiness we once thought it to be but also an expanse fill with not only planets, stars, gas, and galaxies, but also "something" in the form of matter and forces.

Space Is Not Nothing

To explore the idea that even space does not constitute nothing, NASA scientist and relativistic astrophysicist Slava Turishev demonstrates the principle that even space contains something. Using water and a suspended container, Turishev conducts an experiment first employed by Isaac Newton hundreds of years ago. With a bit of dye dropped into the water, the container is twisted on a rope, then let go. The spinning container shows that at first the water and the dye remain relatively motionless to the spin of the container. It is only after a few seconds of spin that the water begins to move with the container, dragged by centrifugal force. Newton surmised that actual space must be acting upon the water to allow its near motionless relative to the moving container. And if so, space must exist everywhere and be full of something, and just as we and other objects occupy it, it, too, must occupy us.

Just what the something was Newton could not figure out. A few hundred years later (1915), Albert Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity and concluded that Newton had been correct. Einstein noted that space/time (Newton's elusive "something") was a pliable fabric into which everything in the universe was woven.

Space Is Something -- But What?

"Through the Wormhole" then introduces us to Frank Close, a particle physicist, who quickly conducts an experiment that shows that the absence of something -- the creation of a vacuum -- causes matter to implode. Close explains that basic Quantum Theory itself allows for the constant exchange of energy and the Uncertainty Principle ensures that one can never be assured of the position of any given physical particle, even if an observer is continually unaware of it. In short, a vacuum is not true emptiness at all but full of energy exchange. And it is in the energy field, the electron shroud of each atom, that contains the fundamental force of what binds the universe, a force that, if somehow disrupted or switched off, would alter the universe as we know it and, in the worst case, end the universe's existence.

According to Quantum Mechanics there exists enough energy within vacuum to completely destroy all matter, so why doesn't it? Something, as Morgan Freeman puts it, is keeping nothing in check. But what?

Enter Neil Weiner, a theoretical physicist at New York University, who posits that the difference between the theoretical energy level of the universe and the observed energy level, which is separated by an enormous amount, can be explained by Supersymmetry, the idea that there are equal and opposite forces at work in the universe heretofore undiscovered that cancel out the energy that should have already boiled the universe away.

But Weiner's and other proponents of Supersymmetry have yet to find proof of the existence of their canceling particles.

Our Universe As Shell Surrounding Emptiness

To help explain that true emptiness or nothingness cannot exist, Freeman turns to the story of Gerard 't Hooft, the theoretical physicist who won the 1999 Nobel Prize for his work on electroweak interactions. It was 't Hooft who explained away Stephen Hawking's claim that black holes were devourers of the universe that converted something to nothing, a theory that 't Hooft and other physicists found fundamentally disturbing in that it ran against the idea that even a vacuum was made up of particles and that, therefore, allowed for the exchange of energy. 't Hooft, using as a model an asteroid named for him, refuted Hawking's theory with the idea that black holes did not convert something into nothing but would become altered as it assimilated and incorporated the destroyed asteroid. In fact, 't Hooft theorized that the entire universe exists as information that could be likened to an empty box where all its information is stored along the surface, where it can be moved and altered by never made to disappear, where the empty space within is simply that and a waste of space.

Something As Existence In Perception

Katy Freese is a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan. Her work seems to enter into the world of the supernatural as she explains how it is the repulsion of atoms' electron fields that explains why things of substance cannot pass through each other and appear solid. The evidence of solidity, by extension, is an illusion, so nothing could simply be a state of perspective. Freese explains that, taken in scale, the nucleus of an atom would be as small as a grain of sugar at the center of a tennis court-sized electron shell, with supposedly empty space in between the nucleus and the spinning electrons. With the advent of the idea of dark matter, a strange force that scientists believe exists due to the bending of light around invisible expanses that surround galaxies, it has been postulated that dark matter particles exist everywhere and even passes through solid objects undetected. Freese is one of many physicists attempting to prove the existence of dark matter, something that may or may not ever be detectable as a weak force interacting within the universe. Although she finds the idea discouraging, she laughingly notes that the biggest contribution to the universe could be nothingness.

So How Did Something Come From Nothing?

To conclude "Through the Wormhole," Freeman notes that it has only been a decade since it was confirmed that the true origin of the universe occurred some 13.7 billion years ago. Experiments and observations have traveled the long road of universal expansion back in time to a point where a single cataclysmic event saw the emergence of something from nothing. How was that even made possible?

Gabriele Veneziano is considered the "Father of String Theory," an overarching theory that attempts to incorporate all forces and forms of matter and combine the theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. But Veneziano isn't satisfied with the idea that the universe began as a single event, that everything we now know once simply came into being from nothing. He believes that the existed a pre-universe, one where the basic forces extant in our own universe were in operation but on a far weaker scale. According to Veneziano, forces prevalent in the pre-universe became stronger and stronger through increased interaction until there was a "blow out." This theory contends that there was never nothing in the universe but always something.

Instruments are now being designed to test Veneziano's theory. If a pre-universe once existed, then it conceivably can be detected via gravitational force shockwaves. And if detected, it could possibly prove that nothing has never existed as a state.

Morgan Freeman leaves his audience with the idea that the ancient Greeks believed that nothingness was a conscious and physical impossibility, that once one formulated the thought of attempting to discern or describe nothing, something then exists. He suggests that scientists, oddly enough, have spent centuries proving them correct. And no matter what theories and ideas have come along to test the idea of nothingness, from the emptiness of space to the emptiness between and an electron and an atomic nucleus, humanity inevitably has been left with the existence of something every time. And where there is something, there certainly cannot be absence of everything or nothing.

Or can there be?

"Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman" airs on the Science Channel on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

(photo credit: David Sifry, Creative Commons)

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