Patterns in the Void

Why nothing is important.

Westview Press, June 2002!

"Just the Facts M'am"

Fact 1

Space is much more than Nothing. Look at the room around you, or that pencil you are holding. Can you twist it so that it moves through a fourth dimension in space? Of course not! So, what is it that is forcing space to be exactly 3-dimensional and actively preventing you from turning a simple pencil along some additional dimension? There has to be some hidden property of space that prevents this, so space as we commonly think of it cannot be inert and empty!

Fact 2

Your space is not the same as my space. Einstein's relativity says that every observer has their own reference frame, and the collection of these reference frames and how we need them to understand events in space, forces us to stop thinking of space as all that there is. In fact, we have to think in terms of a new 'thing' called spacetime to really make sense of the kinds of things we see going on at high speeds and high energies. It isn't 3-d space that is the kernal, the core, of our experience, it is this elusive concept of spacetime that matters. Evolution has not equipped us to intuitively understand what spacetime is, so we will always remain a bit frustrated by this idea no matter how often someone explains it to us. We simply cannot understand how two different things like space and time can be merged together into a new, single thing.

Fact 3

Spacetime is the alternate name that physicists have given the gravitational field of the universe. There is no mathematical difference between the thing that we call 'spacetime' and the other thing that we call the gravitational field. Because gravitational fields that act like the ones we know about cannot exist in more than four dimensions, this also means that spacetimes that lead to our kind of world cannot exist in other than four dimensions. Although this constrains the large-scale properties of spacetime, it does not mean that at the quantum or sub-atomic scale, spacetime has to be four dimensional.

Fact 4

Space and time are the physical components to gravity. When we study electromagnetic fields, we represent these fields by changes in their electric and magnetic components. Einstein's relativity says that when we study gravitational fields these fields are defined by two components which we experience as 3-d space and time. If we could shut of all gravitational fields in the universe, space and time would also cease to exist.

Fact 5

There is nothing else that holds up space and time other than gravitational fields. If you want to understand what time and space are, these qualities of nature are found within the gravitational field of the universe, not in some background 'thing' in which gravitational fields are embedded. If such a 'thing' exists, it is itself beyond time and space and has no physical influence upon events within our cosmos.

Fact 6

Gravitational fields can only be described in four dimensions, not just three.

Fact 7

Space is not empty. Even if you could extract all atoms, particles and energy from a 3-d container, there are quantum mechanical processes which fill this space with virtual particles and energy. You cannot see any of this activity, but sub-atomic particles are affected by them in measurable ways.

Fact 8

Most of what you are is actually just energy trapped in a field. Your mass consists mostly of the mass of protons and neutrons, but these are in turn built up from quarks bound together into proton and neutron 'packages' by the strong nuclear force. The mass of a quark, by itself, only accounts for 3% of your total mass. The rest of your mass comes from the energy of the field which causes the strong nuclear force. You are mostly 'not there'!

Fact 9

There are four basic kinds of fields in nature: Matter, gravity, force and scalar. Matter fields are responsible for the quarks and electrons that make up ordinary matter. Force fields include electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Gravity may be a separate force field from these other three, or it may be something entirely different. We don't know yet. Finally, scalar fields are embedded in space and have no source. They are responsible for particles having mass and forces having the strengths that they do. They are also responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe.

Fact 10

The information needed to define the kinds of particles, fields and dimensions existing in the physical world seems to be 'hidden' in the nature of the gravitational field itself. Most of the work now being done in theoretical physics involves the study of strings which combine together to create spacetime itself, and to define the properties of all the fields that inhabit spacetime.

Fact 11

Certain kinds of patterns seem to reoccur in our internal imagery of the physical world. Physicists search for patterns in their data by trying many different kinds of internal models. 'Suppose that the cosmos was foamy like a sponge?' 'What if particles were really tiny bits of string vibrating in space?' Physicists constantly use familiar patterns and shapes to suggest new relationships in their mathematical rendering of nature.

Fact 12

Certain kinds of descriptive ideas seem to be re-invented over and over again. Ancient Greeks imagined space filled by 'atoms'. Descartes imagined space filled by invisible particles that caused pushes. Modern quantum mechanics imagines fields consisting of invisible 'virtual particles'.

Fact 13

Our left and right hemispheres see the world very differently.

Fact 14

Our notion of the permanence of the physical world is in part an illusion we create through the efforts of our brains. There are many brain dysfunctions that leave humans with a very different intuition about space, time, and the way in which the world operates logically. This does not mean that you can walk through walls simply by retraining your brain, but it does seem to mean that you may experience a world in which these acts could be possible....

Mind Games