Brain Pickings

What Is Nothing? A Mind-Bending Debate about the Universe Moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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“You can’t assert an answer just because it’s not something else.”

Isaac Asimovsage of science, champion of creativity in education, visionary of the future, lover of libraries, Muppet friend — endures as one of the most visionary scientific minds in modern history. Every year, the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, of which Asimov had been a tenacious supporter, hosts the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, inviting some of the greatest minds of our time to discuss monumental unanswered questions at the frontier of science. The 2013 installment explored the existence of nothing in a mind-bending conversation between science journalist Jim Holt, who has previously pondered why the world exists, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, who has explored the science of “something” and “nothing,” Princeton astrophysics professor J. Richard Gott, NYU journalism professor Charles Seife, and Stanford physicist Eva Silverstein, moderated by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson. The wide-ranging conversation spans such subjects as quantum mechanics, space-time, black holes, and string theory.

Holt considers Leibniz and the invention of the calculus as a radical turning point in the history of science and philosophy:

The crucial notion of the calculus is the notion of the infinitesimal — the infinitely small. And what is the infinitesimal? It’s not nothing — but it’s not quite something, either. It somehow mediates between finitude and nothingness. … You have to have a temperamental attraction to dangerous ideas, and the infinitesimal is considered to be an extremely dangerous idea, and there was a great resistance to the calculus because of it.

One apparent universal the panel points out is the ubiquity of creation myths across civilizations, bespeaking some fundamental human need to understand how nothing became something — but Holt points to a curious exception:

The creation myth is always about how the world we live in came into existence. … There’s an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã, who are the only civilization known that doesn’t have any creation myth at all. When they ask about the world, they say, “It’s always been like this.”

But the soundbite of the night comes from Tyson himself, in answering an audience question about science vs. religion — which is really a meditation on the fundamentals of critical thinking and what science is:

There can be alternatives that are not always religious. That’s an interesting false dichotomy that’s often set up: If it’s not this, it must be religious. No: If it’s not this, it could be other stuff you haven’t thought of yet. You can’t assert an answer just because it’s not something else. That’s a false argument that’s been made throughout time, and the better scientists that move forward never assume anything just because one thing is wrong.

Complement with what it’s like to live in a universe of 10 dimensions and John Updike on why there is something rather than nothing.

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