Much ado about nothing newscenter

Nothing has been around for a long time. As far back as the Babylonians, mathematicians have expressed the idea of nothing in terms of a symbol, says Steve Gonek, a professor of mathematics at Rochester, who studies analytic number theory and teaches a course called The Infinite. Yet the idea of using zero as a number to express nothing is relatively new; neither the Babylonians nor the ancient Greeks and Romans used zero in this way.

Sometime between 1200 and 1500 the whole idea of a number began changing, Gonek says. The Greeks had very sophisticated geometry, but no algebra. With algebra, you needed to think of numbers in a different way, at times using an x or other variables as abstractions of numbers. This type of abstraction made it possible to think of zero as a number.


“Zero is considered a number now, but it took further development for it to be thought of as more than just a placeholder.”

“The concept of nothing in philosophy historically centered on the question of whether or not a vacuum—space without matter—is even possible,” says Alison Peterman, an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester. Peterman specializes in the history and philosophy of science and notes that philosophy and science were very much intertwined in the early days of modern physics.

In the medieval period, Aristotle’s dictum was the subject of much debate and experimentation. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris forbid the teaching of Aristotelian philosophical views that threatened to undermine the established religion. One of the unacceptable theses was that a vacuum was impossible because, the Bishop argued, God should be free to create anything, including nothing.

Many pre-Newtonian scientists, such as René Descartes, agreed a vacuum was impossible, even incoherent; Descartes argued, for example, that if there were really nothing in between two walls of a vacuum chamber, those walls would be touching each other. Later, Newton upended this notion, saying there was an absolute space, with places that physical stuff might occupy or leave empty. For several centuries after Newton, scientists like 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell continued to argue that there must be some kind of ether filling space, in which, for example, light rays could travel. This, too, was eventually rejected, and replaced with the concept of an electromagnetic field.

Yet often when we ask questions about nothing, we are not necessarily talking about absolute nothing. “Even Professor Bigelow’s amazingly empty vacuum chamber still has quantum energy states, fields, and virtual particles in it,” she says. “And if you could get rid of all the fields and quantum states—everything we think of as physical stuff—you might want to say there is something in the region enclosed by the chamber: namely, space.”

“Think about a simple musical instrument, such as a harp,” Bigelow says. “If I pluck a string, it vibrates and the way it moves is what I associate with a musical note. Quantum mechanics would say that the harp is emitting some sound, even when it’s just sitting there. If those strings can vibrate, they will all be vibrating an itsy-bitsy bit, all the time.”

By removing atoms. Atoms in a gas at room temperature move at approximately 400 meters per second, or about the speed of a passenger airplane. In order to remove atoms and artificially create a space that is close to nothing, Bigelow and his PhD students Joe Murphree and Maitreyi Jayaseelan use various suction pumps, beginning with a pump like the one you might use to deflate an air mattress and ultimately progressing to a turbo pump with spinning blades.