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New book 'Void' explores the mysterious physics of empty space

by Julia Paskin | Take Two

James Weatherall, Author of "The Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing" Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

Nothingness. It sounds pretty bleak. For scientists, the physics of nothing is actually pretty exciting. In fact, some say that it's critical to understanding the very nature of the universe.

The new book, "Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing" explores history, theories, and the possible scientific importance of unlocking the mystery of empty space. 

Take Two's A Martinez spoke with the book's author, James Weatherall. He's a professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine.

Highlights

The idea behind "Void": 

One of the things I'm very interested in is how science can provide insight in to the big philosophical questions. And I think how we understand what the world would be like if there were nothing in it— what it would mean for there to be nothing in the world... and understanding what physics does say is important to the old philosophical project.

Defining "nothing" in physics: 

I think about it in terms of what space and time are like. What our modern physical theories tell us about the structure of empty space over time. 

I think one of the striking things especially about 20th century physical theories like Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Field Theory— which is the theory underlying particle physics— is that in both of these theories, what we would ordinarily mean by nothing or emptiness or something like that, isn't really possible in the theory. Or at least isn't the only possibility in the theory. Perhaps more interestingly though, is that in these two theories, what nothingness or empty space is like are really radically different from one another. We don't have a single conception of empty space that I think makes sense across all of our modern physical theories. 

The practical applications:

The sorts of things that I talk about in the book are not going to lead to building a better mouse trap. These are fundamental issues in modern physics. But the fact is, the kind of physical theories that these ideas come out of like General Relativity and like Quantum Field Theory, turn out to be essential for ordinary technological applications. For instance, GPS systems wouldn't work if we didn't understand General Relativity. It turns out, General Relativity is essential for getting GPS to work. And built into General Relativity is this conception of what the world would be like if there were no matter. So, it's maybe a step or two away but fundamental physical theory is essential, I would say to ordinary technical applications. 

*Quotes edited for clarity

To hear the full interview, click the blue media player above. 

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