meIn 1654, a German scientist and politician named Otto von Guericke was supposedly busy being the mayor of Magdeburg. But instead he was doing a demonstration for the princes of the Holy Roman Empire. With his new invention, a vacuum pump, he sucked air out of a copper ball made up of two hemispheres. Then he had two teams of horses, 15 on each, try to separate the two hemispheres from each other. To the amazement of the royal spectators, the horses could not separate the two hemispheres due to the enormous pressure of the atmosphere around them.
Von Guericke became obsessed with the idea of a void after learning about the modern and radical idea of a heliocentric universe: a universe with the sun at the center and the planets revolving around it. But for this idea to work, the space between the planets must be filled with nothing. Otherwise, friction will slow down the motion of the planets.
Void sings to us, the underlying harmony of reality itself.
Scientists, philosophers, and theologians all over the world had debated the existence of the void for thousands of years, and here was Von Greyck and his set of horses showing that it’s real. But the idea of emptiness remained uncomfortable, and it was only reluctantly acknowledged. We might be able to artificially create a vacuum with enough intelligence here on Earth, but nature hated the idea. Scientists came to a compromise: space was filled with the fifth element, which is ethera substance that didn’t have many obvious properties, but it was definitely not a thing.
But like the quantum and cosmological revolutions of the 20The tenth The century arrived, and scientists never found this ether and continued to appear empty-handed.
The more we search, through ever more powerful telescopes and microscopes, the more we discover. Astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered in the 1920s that the Andromeda Nebula was actually the Andromeda Galaxy, home to billions of stars 2.5 million light-years away. As far as we could tell, all those lonely light years weren’t filled with much at all, just a missing hydrogen atom or a wandering photon. Compared to the relatively small size of the galaxies themselves (our Milky Way spans just 100,000 light-years across), absence seemed to dominate the universe.
At subatomic scales, scientists have also discovered that atoms are surprisingly empty places. If you were to rescale a hydrogen atom so that its nucleus was the size of a basketball, the nearest electron would sit about two miles away. With no weed under a single offspring in between.
no thing. Nothing at all. Continuous experiments and observations have only served to confirm that, on large and small scales, we seem to live in an empty world.
Then that nothingness opened up. In the void that dominates the size of an atom and the size of the universe, physicists have found something. Far from the soothing ether of the past, this thing is powerful enough to tear our universe apart. It turns out that Void is alive.
In December 2022, an international team of astronomers released the results of their latest survey of galaxies, their work confirming that the vacuum of space-time is wreaking havoc on the universe. They found that matter makes only a minority contribution to the energy budget of the universe. Instead, most of the energy within the universe is contained in the void, and this energy dominates the future development of the universe.
Their work is the latest in a series of discoveries that span more than two decades. In the late 1990s, two independent teams of astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, which means that our universe is growing bigger and bigger faster and faster every day. The exact rate of expansion is presently still a matter of debate among cosmologists, but the fact is clear: Something Makes the universe explode. It appears as a repulsive gravitational force, which we have named dark energy.
The trick here is that emptiness, which von Greck first showed all those centuries ago, is not as empty as it seems. If you were to take a box (or, following von Guericke’s example, two hemispheres), and remove everything from it, including all particles, all light, everything, you would be left with, strictly speaking, nothing. What you will be left with is the void of space-time itself, which we have learned is an entity in its own right.
Nothing contains all things. It is more precious than gold.
We live in a quantum world. A world where you can never be completely sure of anything. At the smallest of scales, subatomic particles fade and pop into existence, briefly experiencing the world of the living before returning to whence they came, and disappearing from reality before they have a chance to meaningfully interact with anything else.
This phenomenon has different names: quantum foam, space-time foam, vacuum fluctuations. This foam is a fundamental energy of the space-time void itself, a bare earthly plane upon which all other physical interactions occur. In the language of quantum field theory, the marriage offspring of quantum mechanics and special relativity, the quantum fields that represent every type of particle soak into the void of space-time like crusty bread dipped in oil and vinegar. These fields cannot help but vibrate at a fundamental quantum level. From this point of view, emptiness sings to us, the harmony underlying reality itself.
In our most advanced quantum theory, we can calculate the energy in a vacuum, which is infinite. As in, engulfing every cubic centimeter of space and time is an infinite amount of energy, the combined efforts of all those countless but sparkling particles. This isn’t necessarily a problem for the physics we’re used to, because all the interactions of everyday experience sit “above” (for lack of a better term) the infinite tower of energy – it just makes the math a real pain to work with.
All of this would be mathematically annoying but otherwise unremarkable except for the fact that in Einstein’s general theory of relativity, vacuum energy has the uncanny ability to generate a repulsive gravitational force. We usually never notice such effects because the vacuum’s energy overwhelms all of the normal mass within it (in von Guericke’s case, the atmospheric pressure surrounding his two halves was the dominant force at play). But on larger levels, there’s a lot of raw nothingness For the universe that these effects manifest as an accelerated expansion. Recent research suggests that about 5 billion years ago, matter in the universe thinned out so much that dark energy could come to the fore. Today, it accounts for nearly 70 percent of the universe’s total energy budget. Studies have shown that dark energy is currently tearing apart the large structure of the universe, tearing apart giant galaxy clusters and unraveling the cosmic web right before our very eyes.
But the acceleration is not so fast. When we calculate how much vacuum energy is needed to create dark energy effect, we only get a small number.
But our quantitative understanding of the energy of the void says that it must be infinite, or at least incredibly large. Certainly not small. This discrepancy between the theoretical energy of a vacuum and the observed value is one of the great mysteries of modern physics. And it leads to the question of what might be lurking in the vast nothingness of our atoms and our universe. Von Guerick may have been right all along. “Nothing contains all things,” he wrote. “It is more precious than gold, without beginning and end, more joyful than the comprehension of the abundant light, more honorable than the blood of kings, than the heavens, higher than the stars, mightier than the stroke of lightning, perfect and blessed in all things.”
Paul M. Sutter is Research Professor of Astrophysics at Stony Brook University’s Institute for Advanced Computational Sciences and a visiting scholar at the Flatiron Institute in New York City. is an author Your Place in the Universe: Understanding Our Big, Chaotic Existence.
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