Michiana Chronicles: A Story Of Emptiness

Feb 11, 2021

Credit L. Calçada / AP

In my ongoing fascination with the concept of emptiness, I’ve been trying to understand a few basic things about nuclear physics. I see the problem of emptiness as similar to the problem of time—a question of the improbable and accidental nature of existence. Enormous distances, like enormous time-spans and pervasive emptiness, create the experience or concept of desert places—inhuman environments and inexorable threats.

Regarding matter at the sub-atomic level, the difference between the reality we experience daily and what physicists take to be factual is almost absolute. An example is the way a table seems to be solidly here in front of us, wood we can knock on, but is in fact mostly emptiness because the space inside an atom that contains the negatively charged electrons is vast, and the positively charged nucleus, which represents virtually all of the atom’s mass, is such a tiny speck within it. Atoms take up space mostly with nothingness, an emptiness occupied somehow by spinning swarms of electrons, particles of virtually no mass at all. The ordinary materials of our lives are almost entirely composed of nothing. Or, more precisely, what is there is barely there, and yet remains there in the only way it can be.

To illustrate this strange situation, we can say that if Earth were compressed into one solid mass of nuclei, eliminating all of the space between atoms and collapsing electrons and protons within atoms to create an orb of neutrons by eliminating all of the space normally occupied by electrons, the entire mass of Earth could be reduced to a sphere the size of one football stadium. This may help you to see how black holes are possible. Not only is there a balloon-like quality to atoms, but even the protons and neutrons are made up of smaller particles that can be collapsed under tremendous gravitational forces. This is to say that there’s something abyssal about physical existence, a unreality. The most basic things elude our comprehension.

Time poses a similar challenge as we try to make sense of human life. The universe is apparently nearly 14 billion years old, and we humans originated only about 200,000 years ago. We began to record our history in writing less than 6,000 years ago. Just as with our individual lives, an unimaginably long and complex series of biological developments predates us as a species. We are new. We’ve hardly been here any length of time. And even if human beings can somehow survive on Earth for millions of years, the sun will begin to collapse in another five billion years, and we’re likely too far removed from other planetary systems to ever reach them. Meanwhile, stars and galaxies continue to drift farther apart to be lost ultimately (but from whom?) in the dark cold void.

It doesn’t make me feel any better to know that atoms themselves will last perhaps 100 nonillion years (that’s a one followed by 32 zeroes). 

But what we have together right now is something, not quite nothing. To us it appears to be everything. And in that mix is the possibility, I suppose, of love. Valentine’s Day is hours away, and maybe that fact will occupy your time, filling it with expectation: the risk of love, the pure craziness of it, unlikely, and uncertain to last. 

Music: "Nothing from Nothing" by Billy Preston