The Nature of Nothingness

I’ve been talking about politics a lot, lately, and I think I’ll give that a rest and move on to something simpler. Like Astrophysics.

I used to be a genius. When I was a kid, I should have been given a PhD in Physics. You see, I was trying to figure out a problem that has kept minds like Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton puzzled for centuries. Here’s how it happened:

I got into Science Fiction really early. Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein. Not just space operas. Writers that dealt with ideas and concepts. So by the time I was 15 I was fully versed in xenosociology, the speed of light, and the myriad of problems encountered in dealing with infinity.  But in my attempts to understand this esoterica, there was one problem that I just couldn’t get my head around:

What is Outside the Universe?

Well, as any high school physics teacher of the day would have told me, there’s nothing outside the universe. It goes on into infinity. The high school physics teacher would have, of course, been wrong. The universe doesn’t go on to infinity. The universe is finite. But he was more correct than he knew. Follow me, here…

Okay. So the universe has boundaries. But there I was, lying in bed at night, trying to figure it out. If the universe has a boundary, what’s outside that?

I soon figured out that the boundary of the universe is possible to picture. Think of the Big Bang. All the atoms that were created started flying away in all directions on an ever-expanding perimeter. This sphere of the farthest, fastest atoms is the boundary of our universe. But what’s beyond that? Why, nothing, of course. Just like there was nothing before they arrived, and there is nothing between them.

Early scientists were caught in the same conundrum as I was; they couldn’t conceive of such a thing as nothingness, so they invented the “aether,” which they thought filled all the gaps between everything in space. I know. Ridiculous, right? But the human mind needs such crutches.

A Creative Allegory

I remember a science fiction book I read way back then. It postulated a “generation ship,” a sub-light-speed colony ship making a five-hundred-year voyage to a distant planet. Those who sent the colonists economized. They built their ship by hollowing out a huge asteroid.

Of course, in order to create a good Sci-Fi story, something had to go wrong, and the people lost their way and their scientific knowledge. With successive generations their history faded back into myth and superstition. There they were, sitting in a cavity with rock all around. As far as they could penetrate, there was nothing but rock that got colder the farther they dug. So they postulated a universe that was filled with an infinity of rock, and their realm was a small bubble of air and warmth in the middle of it.

Logical, yes? Whether it’s rock, aether, or “nothing,” there it goes, outward in all directions.

But the human brain cannot accept a universe of solid rock extending to infinity in all directions. So how could my immature, untrained mind cope with it? It cost me many sleepless hours.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It.

I only figured it out later; the problem isn’t with the universe. It’s with the language. Amazing how much the way we describe the world affects how we perceive it.

Going back to the high school physics teacher, his statement that there was nothing outside the universe was correct, but the very fact that he gave that “nothing” a name meant that, in the minds of his listeners, it was something. It was a noun. A person, place or thing. Thus, in our minds, it had substance.

So, beyond our universe was a sort of nothing, but it existed, therefore it was actually something. Which must necessarily have boundaries.

So What’s Outside of That Nothing?

Many nights I lay in bed trying to get my head around the outside of the size of the almost-infinitely large nothingness that surrounded me. I even got to the point of wondering if it wouldn’t be simpler if the universe didn’t exist, and there was nothing but nothing everywhere. But my mind swirled around to the fact that there had to be a boundary to that “nothing” as well. Sort of like an onion, or one of those nesting Russian dolls, but seen from the inside.

The problem is solved if you rephrase the teacher’s statement to read “…there is a lack of anything out there.” A complete lack of anything at all. When you think of what’s outside our universe, it just isn’t. And it’s much easier to comprehend that what isn’t there has no shape, form, or boundaries, because “it” doesn’t exist. “It” is a pronoun, and one step away from the reality of a noun.

And when I think of it that way, I feel much better, and then I can go to sleep.

But Then, of Course…

…we go back to before the Big Bang, and wonder what was here before that, and where the matter of the universe came from. Then we start wondering about the infinite (or not, as the case may be) nature of time, and how it can’t really stretch back or forward forever. Or can it?  Or is it a closed loop? A Möbius strip?

And don’t even bring up religion, because if a god created the first matter, then there had to be a god there before that, and around we go again, but this time with every religious scholar in the world telling us we’re wrong.

Here I am, over fifty years later, and I guess I’m not ready for that PhD yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *