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Posts Tagged ‘nothing

“Horror vacui”*…

A 1672 book about the vacuum by the German scientist Otto von Guericke depicts a demonstration he gave for Emperor Ferdinand III, in which teams of horses tried unsuccessfully to pull apart the halves of a vacuum-filled copper sphere.

Recently, (Roughly) Daily took a look at nothing– and the perplexing philosophical questions that it raises. Today, Charlie Wood examines nothing’s physical manifestation, the vacuum, and the similarly perplexing questions it raises for physicists…

Millennia ago, Aristotle asserted that nature abhors a vacuum, reasoning that objects would fly through truly empty space at impossible speeds. In 1277, the French bishop Etienne Tempier shot back, declaring that God could do anything, even create a vacuum.

Then a mere scientist pulled it off. Otto von Guericke invented a pump to suck the air from within a hollow copper sphere, establishing perhaps the first high-quality vacuum on Earth. In a theatrical demonstration in 1654, he showed that not even two teams of horses straining to rip apart the watermelon-size ball could overcome the suction of nothing. [See illustration above.]

Since then, the vacuum has become a bedrock concept in physics, the foundation of any theory of something. Von Guericke’s vacuum was an absence of air. The electromagnetic vacuum is the absence of a medium that can slow down light. And a gravitational vacuum lacks any matter or energy capable of bending space. In each case the specific variety of nothing depends on what sort of something physicists intend to describe. “Sometimes, it’s the way we define a theory,” said Patrick Draper, a theoretical physicist at the University of Illinois.

As modern physicists have grappled with more sophisticated candidates for the ultimate theory of nature, they have encountered a growing multitude of types of nothing. Each has its own behavior, as if it’s a different phase of a substance. Increasingly, it seems that the key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a careful accounting of these proliferating varieties of absence.

“We’re learning there’s a lot more to learn about nothing than we thought,” said Isabel Garcia Garcia, a particle physicist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in California. “How much more are we missing?”

So far, such studies have led to a dramatic conclusion: Our universe may sit on a platform of shoddy construction, a “metastable” vacuum that is doomed — in the distant future — to transform into another sort of nothing, destroying everything in the process.

Nothing started to seem like something in the 20th century, as physicists came to view reality as a collection of fields: objects that fill space with a value at each point (the electric field, for instance, tells you how much force an electron will feel in different places). In classical physics, a field’s value can be zero everywhere so that it has no influence and contains no energy. “Classically, the vacuum is boring,” said Daniel Harlow, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Nothing is happening.”

But physicists learned that the universe’s fields are quantum, not classical, which means they are inherently uncertain. You’ll never catch a quantum field with exactly zero energy…

For an explanation of how key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a more complete understanding of the vacuum: “How the Physics of Nothing Underlies Everything,” from @walkingthedot in @QuantaMagazine.

* attributed to Aristitole, and usually “translated,” as above, “Nature abhors a vacuum”


As we noodle on nought, we might spare a thought for Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he died on this date in 1967 at the age of 83.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television…)

Gernsback, wearing his invention, TV Glasses


“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…

Joy Walker: Three Boxes Three Ways, 2009

Nonbeing belongs to that category of concepts that seem self-evident and self-explanatory, but as FT explains, it has perplexed philosophers for ages…

Bertrand Russell’s 1951 obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein is only a few paragraphs long, and the second consists largely of a single pointed anecdote:

Quite at first I was in doubt as to whether he was a man of genius or a crank…. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: “There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.” When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.

The exchange is typical of the two philosophers’ relationship: Russell’s proper British demeanor was frequently ruffled by the Austrian’s dry humor. But it also illustrates two general approaches to philosophy: one that takes pleasure in complexities, absurdities, and ironies, and one that takes pleasure in resolving them. Just as Wittgenstein surely realized that there was no hippopotamus in the room, Russell surely realized that Wittgenstein’s objection could not be dispelled empirically by looking under each desk. At stake was not a fact of perception but the epistemological status of negation—the philosophical meaning and value of assertions about nothing.

Nothing, or nonbeing, belongs to that category of concepts—like being, space, and consciousness—that seem self-evident and self-explanatory to most people most of the time, but that for philosophy have been objects of deepest perplexity and millennia-long dispute. It’s a little like breathing, which happens automatically until we stop to think about it. To most of us, Russell’s statement “There is no hippopotamus in this room” is both easily understood and easily verified. We think we know what it means, and most of us would only need a quick look around to affirm or deny the proposition.

But here our troubles begin. If you look around the room and don’t see a hippopotamus, presumably you do still see something: some kind of perception or sensory data is reaching your consciousness, which allows you to make a judgment. What is it that you do see when you see a hippopotamus not being there? Are you perceiving a nonbeing, seeing a particular thing whose nature is absence, or are you not perceiving any being, seeing no “thing” at all? When you see a hippopotamus not being there, are you also seeing a whale and a lion and a zebra not being there? Is every room full of all the things that aren’t in it?

From an evolutionary perspective, one predator not being there is just as good as any other predator not being there, but dialectics and logic are a little more particular. If every possible animal is not there at the same time, what specific truth-value can the assertion “There is no hippopotamus in this room” possibly have? Hence Wittgenstein’s insistence, facetious or not, that all existential propositions are meaningless. In this manner the complications and implications of nothing spill into every area of philosophical inquiry, and we quickly come to sympathize with Aristophanes’ brutal satire of philosophers in The Clouds:

Socrates: Have you got hold of anything?

Strepsiades: No, nothing whatever.

Socrates: Nothing at all?

Strepsiades: No, nothing except my tool, which I’ve got in my hand.

Nonbeing, through the ages: “Apropos of Nothing,” from @ft_variations in @nybooks.

* Oscar Wilde


As we analyze absence, we might send mindful birthday greetings to Mahasi Sayadaw; he was born on this date in 1904. A Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master, he had a significant impact on the teaching of vipassanā (insight) meditation in the West and throughout Asia.


“No great artist ever sees things as they really are”*…

Tom Miller in front of his 2016 artwork, Nothing

Indeed, sometimes they see nothing at all…

Earlier this month, an Italian artist named Salvatore Garau went viral when his “immaterial sculpture”—that is, a work of art made of literally nothing—sold for €15,000 ($18,300) at auction.

Articles about the sale was shared widely, often accompanied by captions of the “I could have done that” variety. Users posted pictures of blank spaces—their own invisible sculptures which could surely be had for a fraction of Garau’s price. Many bemoaned the fact that they didn’t think of it first. 

Then there was Tom Miller, a performance artist from Gainesville, Florida, who says he actually did do it first—and now he’s filing a lawsuit against Garau to prove it.

The Florida artist says that, in 2016, he installed his own invisible sculpture in Gainesville’s Bo Diddley Community Plaza, an outdoor event space. He titled it Nothing and erected it over the course of five days with a team of workers who moved blocks of air like mimes building the Great Pyramid of Giza. Tens of people were on hand to see the opus unveiled that June. 

Miller even made a short film about the work, a mockumentary that features fake artists and curators as talking heads. He compares his respective take on nothingness to John Cage’s “4′33″ and Seinfeld

“All I can say personally is that Nothing is very important to me,” Miller told Artnet News in an email. “I should be credited with Nothing (specifically the idea of Nothing fashioned into sculpture form), and Gainesville, Florida—not Italy—is where Nothing happened first.”

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that immaterial art has a long history stretching back to the 20th century. Yves Klein exhibited an empty gallery space in 1958 and envisioned an “architecture of air” a couple of years later. Tom Friedman installed an invisible object atop a plinth in 1992—and it sold for £22,325 nine years later.

Miller may have even more competition than he realizes. Since Artnet News first published an article about Garau’s work, numerous other artists have written to me about their own invisible sculpture practices. It turns out it’s hard to get noticed when you’re an artist who makes… nothing.

Tom Miller, who says he made an invisible sculpture in 2016, is demanding visibility: “A Florida Man Is Threatening to Sue an Artist Whose Invisible Sculpture Sold for $18,000, Saying He Came Up With the Idea First”; from Taylor Dafoe (@tddafoe) in @artnet

* Oscar Wilde


As we muse on the missing, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1989 that Northrop Grumman did its best to make something all-too-tangible disappear: it first flew what became the B-2 Spirit— better known as the Stealth Bomber.


“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…



The computer you’re reading this article on right now runs on a binary — strings of zeros and ones. Without zero, modern electronics wouldn’t exist. Without zero, there’s no calculus, which means no modern engineering or automation. Without zero, much of our modern world literally falls apart.

Humanity’s discovery of zero was “a total game changer … equivalent to us learning language,” says Andreas Nieder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.

Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.

So let’s not take zero for granted. Nothing is fascinating. Here’s why…

It is indeed fascinating, as you’ll see at “The mind-bendy weirdness of the number zero, explained.”

Pair with: “Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?” and with The Ministry of Ideas’ podcast “Nothing Matters.”

* Oscar Wilde


As we obsess about absence, we might box a dome-shaped birthday cake for inventor, educator, author, philosopher, engineer, and architect R(ichard) Buckminster Fuller; he was born on this date in 1895.  “Bucky” most famously developed the geodesic dome, the only large dome that can be set directly on the ground as a complete structure, and the only practical kind of building that has no limiting dimensions (i.e., beyond which the structural strength must be insufficient).  But while he never got around to frankfurters, he was sufficiently prolific to have scored over 2,000 patents.

“Fullerenes” (molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow spheres, ellipsoids, or tubes), key components in many nanotechnology applications, were named for Fuller, as their structure mimes that of the geodesic dome.  Spherical fullerenes (resembling soccer balls) are also called “buckyballs”; cylindrical ones, carbon nanotubes or “buckytubes.”

I have to say, I think that we are in some kind of final examination as to whether human beings now, with this capability to acquire information and to communicate, whether we’re really qualified to take on the responsibility we’re designed to be entrusted with. And this is not a matter of an examination of the types of governments, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economic systems. It has to do with the individual. Does the individual have the courageto really go along with the truth?

God, to me, it seems
is a verb,
not a noun,
proper or improper.

For more, see “And that’s a lot.”



Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

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