Patterns in the Void

Why nothing is important.

Westview Press, June 2002!

Mind Games

When you read books written by astronomers and physicists who are trying to explain the workings of nature, you get caught up in words and 'If-Then' relationships. This is how scientists explain things. A book, by its very design, forces us to explore a subject in a very precise and narrow way.

Another way to explore the world is by images alone.

At first this doesn't seem to be appropriate to 'explaining' how gravity works, how stars evolve, or the relationships within atoms, but that is only because we have never really tried to do so. Words can be powerful, but as they say 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. Also, while words only make sense to people adept in a specific language, pictures can be understood across cultures and language groups. Pictures can also evoke powerful emotions because they are processed by the brain's right hemisphere (Minor Hemisphere) which doesn't need to be convinced by language or logic the way that the brain's left hemisphere (Dominant Hemisphere) needs to be.

One of the most exciting and peculiar things about Nature is that it likes to use the same kinds of patterns in vastly different things. To the eye alone, you will often find yourself amazed at the similarity of things spanning vastly different scales. We can use this similarity to our advantage in trying to explore other parts of nature that are too remote, or invisible, or hidden.

Look at these two images:

They look similar don't they? You see spots against a dark background. One image has slightly more order to it than the other because it seems that the spots line up in rows a bit more often that in the other image. But you have no sense of scale at all. Now let me tell you what you are seeing.

The image on the left is a satellite view of eastern North America at night. You are seeing city lights. The image on the right is a jumble of stars in the core of a star cluster. The difference in scale is 100 billion centimeters vs 10 billion billion centimeters, which is a factor of 100 billion times. The poet would describe the star field as 'cities of light scattered like diamonds upon the dark blanket of night'. It isn't important what the scientific description is, of what we are seeing. We can always supply this annotation if we like, but to do so with fidelity we would need to be an astronomer. If, on the other hand, I wanted to invoke from you an emotional or visceral response, I would show you the images and quote you a line of poetry. What we are striving for is, not just another competent and wordy explanation of how things work. We are, instead, trying to make these explanations take on a life of their own, an emotional and intuitive life, that goes beyond words and that can be more immediately understood.

In particular, let's explore how matter, field and gravity dissolve away into a finer, more subtle, level of structure, and how the appearance of this structure may resemble things we have already encountered in nature. Our goal isn't to 'explain' quantum field theory or general relativity. Our goal is simply to come up with plausible internal images we can use as a reference when someone tells us, in words, what these things are. It is this entire visual experience that has been totally absent from all of the popular descriptions of this area of science.

As we explore a variety of visual images for their evocative content in helping us to understand the nature of space and field, there is one thing that is missing. It is the sense of 'reality'. The patterns seem interesting, but is this entire approach really valid? Aren't we just making things up just to craft another interesting story? What is real and what is not? Even physicists and brain researchers don't see these words in the 'black and white' way that most people typically do.

One of the founders of quantum mechanics, Neils Bohr, once said that atoms are not the same kind of reality as trees. Richard Feynman often said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics you are wrong. No one really understands quantum mechanics. Physicists also know that there is a portion of the physical world which exists hidden from us in the Void. Virtual particles flit back and forth between scraps of matter; particles appear and disappear under the cloak of quantum mechanics, yet they animate the world with unseen forces. Is it really fair to take Nature at face value in a literal way?


Brain researchers like V.S. Ramashandran at UCLA, have uncovered how the brain creates reality from its sensory information. The slightest error at any step in this neural process leads to a person with a very different experience of reality than the one you and I have and take for granted. What we think we are seeing, and the world that our brains fashion from this sensory information, is an understanding of the world that is much more pliable that we ever suspected. It goes well beyond the simple 'optical illusions' we have encountered. It is not a matter of the brain being 'fooled', because the same faculty in a slightly healthier individual gives them our collective sense of what is real and what is not. Some people hear voices, or see profound meaning in trivial things, or are blindsighted so that they only recognize certain things they are staring at.

For centuries, people have believed in spirits, ghosts, psychic abilities, astrology and a whole host of invisible 'influences'. It is said that 95% of humanity believes in one or more Gods who operate behind the scenes, punish us, and plot our destiny. Other people fervently claim they have been abducted by aliens, or that aliens are manipulating humans biologically as part of some incomprehensible experiment. What is common to all these experiences of the world is a visceral sense, beyond any logical deflection, that they are 'right'. To deny any of these claims, or confront someone holding them with an alternate explanation, is to invite considerable verbal and even physical abuse.

So when we ask a scientist what is 'really' going on, we have to accept the fact that anything that is said in response to this question will have to be judged within the context of several different 'reality' filters that we share. This includes the way our individual brains force us to be attentive to parts of the story; the way that nature chooses to define what is real; and our emotional ability to accept foreign ideas that may go against all that we have been taught before by well-meaning teachers in Grade School.

The hardest idea to shake is that only solid things are real, or that only the things we can experience with our senses actually exist. Have a look through the accompanying list of Scientific Facts and see how you feel about them. Bear in mind that these 'facts' may change a bit as we learn more about nature, but for now assume that they are pretty rock solid. Some of them will puzzle you. Some will amaze you. Some will fill you with a sense of awe. Some may even fill you with a sense of indignation because they go against some core idea or belief you have had all your life.

At this point, we have a set of facts that have been uncovered. In each case we have unavoidably marked each item with some type of emotional label. "Oohhh that's neat' or 'I don't believe that at all'. What is lacking is a way to bring this verbal (list of facts) experience together in our minds so that we can experience a compelling and fuller understanding of space, matter and cosmos. Astronomers and physicists often form internal pictures in which patterns and logical interconnections flow together like the batter in a marbled cake.

Here are the key quotations by famous physicists that will help you understand space a bit better, and appreciate why it is that it is so mysterious! Associated with each of the ideas in the list, are a few images that seem to capture the non-verbal essence of the statement and some of its emotional significance.

 "We entirely shun the vague word of 'space' of which we must honestly acknowledge we cannot form the slightest conception" Einstein (1952) Image 1

 "The universe and its quantum topology are determined by where gravitons are, and what space-time interaction patterns they give rise to" Abdus Salam (1975) Image 1 | Image 2

 "The collision between two particles can be used as a definition of a space-time point. Not all points in the 4-D space-time need to have a physical definition. The empty background of space, of which ones knowledge is only subjective, imposes no dynamical conditions on matter" Robert Dicke (1964) Image 1 | Image 2

 "The essential reality is given by a set of fields, and the quantum dynamics of those fields" Steven Weinberg (1982) Image 1 | Image 2

 "The material particle has no place as a fundamental concept in field theory. Gravity as a field theory must also deny a preferred status to matter" Einstein(1950) Image 1

 "In a theory of gravity, you can't really separate the structure of space-time from the particles which are associated with the force of gravity. " Michael Green (1988) Image 1

 "What else is there out of which to build a particle except spacetime itself?" John Wheeler (1964) Image 1 | Image 2

 "I think that in these theories space and time may not turn out to have overwhelming importance. [They] are just four out of the many degrees of freedom that have to be put together to make a consistent theory." Steven Weinberg (1987) Image 1

 "Space-time does not claim existence on its own, but only as a structural quality of the gravitational field" Albert Einstein (1930) Image 1 | Image 2

As I think about all of these facts and images that attempt to distill the world into an emotionally meaningful experience, the true wonder of it all is that all roads in Nature, when followed downward level after level, seem to lead to the same inescapable realization: Particles and matter are not the ultimate groundwork of Nature. At the most basic level, all known things dissolve into a confluence of reverberating quantum fields, whose interplay in spacetime give us the substance of a stone, the color of a sunset or the fragrance of a rose. Even spacetime may ultimately resolve itself into its own quantum essence as a spider web of interacting particles made up from pure space. There is, perhaps, a germ of truth to the saying that " the universe has more of the character of a thought than a machine". The knots in the fields we call matter are just the tracers of a more fundamental reality, mere flotsam and jetsam on the ocean of the universe. The deep roots that elementary particles have may reach down into the bedrock of spacetime whose geometry ultimately controls their properties and how they are destined to interact with one another. Like an oak or a maple tree, we measure and perceive only their broad canopies. Their roots remain forever hidden.

And so, after all of this, I am left with only one core experience that serves as a beacon for me. On a dark winter's night in January I stood outside and looked at the vast emptinesses between the stars. I saw the dust clouds and nebulae, the faint pinpoints of warmth set against the unimaginable cold of the universe. And in my mind's eye, I saw something else too. I saw a vast landscape of quantum fields busily curving spacetime and steering the motions of matter. I saw beneath this, a plenum of activity just below perceptibility, where ghost-like quanta knit the Void into a dynamic vacuum, and suspend it like a spider's web, above the great abyss of Nothingness. I felt the hardness of my body and the ground beneath my feet dissolve away into the invisible gyrations of spacetime curvature, in a seamless way that reunited my body with the Void itself. My mass was taken up by the energy of massless fields that themselves dissolved into the comings and goings of graviton networks that spun their web works at the foundation of space and time.

What any of these things meant, I had not the slightest clue because the experience was purely non-verbal. But I had the sense that all was well. That no matter what the explanation of what I was witnessing might be, we would come to it in due time if that was our good fortune and destiny. For now, I was content to be living in the most likely of all possible worlds, enchanted by what I knew, but humbled by what I could not.