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Something From Nothing

THE BOOK OF NOTHING Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe By John D. Barrow; Pantheon: 416 pp., $27.50

ZERO The Biography of a Dangerous Idea By Charles Seife; Penguin: 256 pp., $13 paper

THE NOTHING THAT IS A Natural History of Zero By Robert Kaplan; Oxford University Press: 240 pp., $9.95 paper

March 25, 2001|MARGARET WERTHEIM | Margaret Wertheim is the author of "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet."

God is that which nothing is greater than. So, in essence, goes Anselm's famous proof of God's existence. According to the 11th-century saint, the deity was that entity of which nothing more perfect could possibly be conceived. Throughout the Middle Ages, Anselm's argument carried enormous weight, but even in its heyday, this seemingly impregnable logic was the source of much vexation. Literal scrutiny of his words reveals why, and even Anselm himself acknowledges that there is something greater than God, namely nothing.

Anxiety about nothing-which has long been pregnant with heretical implications-has been a major theme of Western thought for close to three millenniums. It was hated, even feared, by the ancient Greek philosophers and medieval Christian theologians alike, and for much of our history, the mere possibility of nothing was strenuously denied. "Nature abhors a vacuum," Aristotle declared in the 4th-century BC, effectively silencing dissent for the next 2,000 years.

In the "age of science," however, attitudes toward nothingness-what the ancients called the void and what is now referred to as the vacuum-have undergone a dramatic shift. Beginning with Galileo, who made empty space the arena of reality, modern physicists have gradually raised the status of nothing. Today many physicists believe that nothingness is the foundation of everything, not just the arena in which matter resides but the substrate from which matter is actually constructed. As physicists envision the universe now, everything that exists is ultimately just a complex enfolding of the underlying substrate of empty space. This vision presents the universe, as English physicist Paul Davies has summed it up, as "nothing but structured nothingness." Indeed, it might be said that one way of characterizing the history of modern physics is the gradual rise in the status of nothing from anathema to supreme principle.

Small wonder, then, that in the last 18 months there have been several books that have chronicled the history of nothing and our changing attitudes to this most enigmatic concept. The most recent of these texts and the widest ranging is English physicist John D. Barrow's "The Book of Nothing." Fans of physics will know Barrow from such previous works as "Theories of Everything" and "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle," and here he demonstrates again his ability to explicate difficult subjects.

This time he casts his net wide, exploring the idea of nothing in natural science and mathematics (where it manifests as zero) and in theology, literature and philosophy. Although patchy in execution, Barrow's efforts to relate scientific developments to wider cultural themes must be applauded. Some of his most fascinating chapters are those that deal with the medieval and early modern eras.

Discussing the medieval antipathy to nothing, Barrow notes that Christian attitudes were inherited not only from the Greek philosophers (many of whom agreed with Aristotle) but also from the Jewish tradition, which saw nothing as the antithesis of God: He whose defining act had been to create the world out of nothing. "What stronger evidence could there be that Nothing was something undesirable: a state without God, a state which He had acted to do away with," Barrow writes.

For Christians, nothingness was the characteristic of being apart from God, hence it was considered atheistic to speak seriously of the void. St. Augustine equated nothing with the Devil; for him nothing represented the greatest evil. How then could it exist before the creation of the world?

The prior existence of nothing implied there was something God lacked before He created the universe, an idea so heretical it had to be combated.

Augustine's solution to this dilemma remains one of the great leaps in Western intellectual history: The universe was not created in time, he declared, but with time. That is, when God created the world so too He created time. There was no nothing before creation because there was quite simply no before. More than 1,500 years later, physicist Stephen Hawking proposed the same idea, albeit outside the theological context, in his bestselling book, "A Brief History of Time."

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