With every something, there is a not-something. For every structure, there is a space. For every object, there is emptiness. To define a ‘thing’ you must also define what the thing is not.
The concept of ‘nothingness’ has fascinated us throughout history. We have used every tool at our disposal to grapple with the concept — philosophical inquiry, mysticism and prayer, art and music, and scientific investigation — and yet we continually come up short…and often empty.
Nothing (literally, no thing) calls to us, again and again. We recoil from the void while simultaneously being drawn to it. Is the absence of everything either a barren desert or a rich field of boundless possibilities? As our understanding of the void grows, we can begin to appreciate that the reality is…both.
The Philosophy of Nothing
The vast emptiness of the cosmos and the indefinability of the extreme has shaped public imagination and philosophical musings through the ages. All along, ambiguity has reigned. What is the nature of the ‘nothing?’ Is it physical, supernatural, or undefined? Is the void the thing that begets (indeed, it’s the ultimate begetter) and allows creation to proceed? Or does it stand alone, apart from us? How do we define it? Can we define it?
These are not mere games of wordplay and semantics, but questions that force us to reckon with the limits of our knowledge and our ability to define and organize the world around us.
In Western thinking, the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher Democritus started with the concept of ‘emptiness’ so that he could go on to fill that emptiness with something — the indivisible ‘atoms’ that made up all of material experience. The Bible starts with: “In the beginning, there was nothing.” From there, the usual process of creation unfolds. To have a cosmos full of things, we need to start with nothing. In this sense, nothing is a blank canvas, but still an entity in its own right. Formless, shapeless, and probably very boring, but still something that a creative power or physical reality can take inspiration from. Aristotle rejected the notion of physical voids, arguing that with a true vacuum there would be nothing to impede movement and thus nothing would ever slow down. Meanwhile, with regard to spiritual voids, Catholic theology surmises that hell is the one place in the cosmos where you are cut off from communion with the divine, and a lousy place to spend eternity.
While Western thinking tended to be rather antagonistic of the void, wondering whether it even exists, and eventually only admitting its possibility in a supernatural sense, Eastern philosophy, theology, and mysticism embraced (and continues to embrace) the idea.
Take for instance the concept of ‘sunyata’ found in Buddhism and related religions. Like most deeply personal and religious concepts, it’s tough to translate exactly and has been the subject of considerable debate and splinters of thought over thousands of years. It generally refers to the idea of emptiness or voidness. Not in the bland sense of an empty cup of water, but a state of existence in which one’s entire identity is completely subsumed into the cosmos, neither giving nor taking. Upon reaching that state, a sufficiently meditative person realizes that all is ephemeral; the entirety of existence is no more real than the foam at the crest of a wave. What is real, in a permanent, constant, comforting way, is the nothing from which all else originates.
Even in these schools, however, the voidness or nothingness of sunyata is again the centerpiece of creation. The void is the from which all else originates. But instead of running from it, devotees are encouraged to seek it out like the headwaters of a great river. According to the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, the void is thus imbued with great power — the greatest power of all — creation.
“The Absolute void is Bhairava who is beyond the senses and the mind, beyond all the categories of these instruments. From the point of view of the human mind, He is most void. From the point of view of Reality, He is most full, for He is the source of all manifestation.”
The Expanse of Nothing
I’ve always been fascinated by nothing. Maybe it was my growing up in the vast cornfields of the Midwest (which, while not technically voids, are a good approximation). Maybe it was my childhood fear of social isolation. No matter what, as I grew in my training and expertise as a cosmologist, a scientist who studies the entire universe as a single, physical object, I became enamoured by the great cosmic voids — the incredible expanses of nothing between the galaxies.
Indeed, science has been able to tell us some very interesting things about the physical void. Step one was establishing that the void – a vacuum of nothingness – could indeed exist. People around the world tinkered and played with pumps even before we fully understood the physics that operated them. Still, while we could create a vacuum here or there if we tried hard enough, scientists doubted there was a lot of it.
As the centuries went by, astronomers and physicists theorized that the cosmos was filled with aether, a substance that was invisible and intangible, but definitely not nothing. By the early 20th century, experiment after experiment had failed to find the aether.
Science came to embrace the vacuum.
Now we know that the average density of matter in the cosmos is about one hydrogen atom per cubic meter. By any reckoning, that’s not a lot. You can easily find a space, between the stars or galaxies, where there’s a whole lot of nothing going on.
In astronomy, for every thing we count and measure, there is a significant amount of nothing to go along with it. Our fastest spacecraft hurtling out of the solar system at 36,000 miles per hour, by far the fastest machines that humanity has ever constructed, would take tens of thousands of years to reach our nearest neighbour star, Proxima Centauri, if they were even headed in that direction. Instead, they’ll likely encounter nothing of note, not even passing within a few light years of another star, for hundreds of millions of years.
The further out we push our observations, the more emptiness we reveal. Galaxies contain up to a trillion individual stars, and yet when galaxies merge together you can count the number of stellar collisions on one hand.
Indeed, by volume most of our universe is nothing. At the very largest scales, there’s a structure, a pattern called the cosmic web, which fills up the observable universe. Galaxies form long, thin ropes and broad walls. Some group together by the thousands in massive clusters. But between all of them lies the great cosmic voids. At their smallest, they stretch for 20 million light-years across. Because of the relative thinness of all the structures in the universe, no matter where you are, you are always literally living on the edge of the abyss.
Sure, if you were to sail a spacecraft through one of those voids you might encounter a stray hydrogen atom, or perhaps spot a dim dwarf galaxy hiding in the dark. But there would be no sun, no source of light or warmth, for millions of light years in every direction. If you want to experience sunyata made manifest, the cosmic voids are a good place to start.
The Importance of Nothing
Beyond the universe is something even emptier than the voidness of sunyata or the bottomless unloved pits of Catholic hell. In scientific terms, the answer to the question “what’s outside the universe?” is undefined. Like trying to find a point one mile north of the North Pole, the question does not permit a physical answer.
That ultimate nothingness — so nothing that it cannot even be defined — sits within our theories of the big bang as well. What came before the universe existed? Well, we don’t know (scientifically), and the question may not even make sense.
It’s here that we find a new concept of nothingness. Not a blank canvas to paint creation upon. Not an underlying girder for the physical manifestation of reality. Not a contrast to define our existence.
In the 20th century, physicists discovered that what we think of as a vacuum is not at all empty. Instead, the emptiness of spacetime is filled with quantum fields — a roiling, tumultuous, chaotic froth of particles constantly appearing from nothing and disappearing back again. It’s this vacuum energy that permeates the cosmos and takes its ultimate (and most mysterious) form in the dark energy that fills the cosmic voids and causes the expansion of our universe to accelerate. Thus, the vacuum becomes promoted from background stage to star actor. The nothing between the stars is now understood to be perhaps the most dynamic and dominant entity in the cosmos.
This also translates into music and art. When listening to a well-composed jazz piece, do you listen to the notes that are played or the ones left out? Which of those create the music? When John Cage composed 4’33”, which consists of the musicians doing nothing for that amount of time, he forced audiences to directly confront the void left in the absence of music…which made its own kind of music.
Should we reject the void or embrace it? Architect Rem Koolhaas proclaimed, “Where there is nothing, everything is possible. Where there is architecture, nothing (else) is possible.” He worked that notion into his architecture, emphasizing the value of negative space as a creative space. When human beings move and work and think and act, we do so in empty places, not defined ones.
Japanese art has historically enfolded the simplistic beauty of nothing, using the paintbrush to explore, examine, and delight in the Buddhist notion of emptiness. The style of ‘yohaku no bi’ (the beauty of white space) can trace its roots back centuries. In that art, the Taoist idea of ‘qi’ becomes vivid —the void is not a void at all, but an energy that has yet to become form. All else emanates from that, and without that nothing we can’t have anything. That style begs us to relieve ourselves of our biases and contemplate the spaces in between.
But the void has a dark side too. We are social creatures, and while we may search for meaning in the emptiness of the cosmos, we wouldn’t necessarily want to live there, with the alienation and isolation it might bring. Depression is a mental disorder characterized by a loss of interest or a loss of joy, an emotional void that affects up to 300 million people across the globe.
Our journey to define the void and our relationship with it is not over. We search for the void with our telescopes and our trumpets, our philosophies, and our paintbrushes. In that exploration, we have mapped our cosmos and celebrated the divine. We have used the void to define our existence and challenge our beliefs, to create art and music and mysticism.
Perhaps that is the void’s greatest gift to humanity. In our quest to understand nothing, we have created so many beautiful things.
About the author
Paul M.Sutter is a research professor in astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. He is also known around the world as the host of several shows, such as How the Universe Works on Science Channel, Space Out on Discovery, and his hit Ask a Spaceman podcast. He is the author of two books, Your Place in the Universe and How to Die in Space, as well as a regular contributor to Space.com, LiveScience, and more. Journalists frequently seek his expert advice, especially in his role as the Weather Channel’s Official Space Specialist. In addition to his traditional science outreach, Paul also explores innovative science and art collaborations, such as his work with Syren Modern Dance in Ticktock, a performance exploring the nature of time through movement and narration.
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