Emerging science writer James Owen Weatherall tackles the well-known concept of nothing through the lens of modern physics. From ancient philosophers to Newtonian physics to relativity and quantum theory, the definition of nothing is constantly redefined. Weatherall focuses on three main subjects—the beginning of modern physics with Newton and Leibniz, relativity with Einstein and Maxwell, and quantum theory with Dirac and Feynman and Schwinger et al.
You might think nothing is just the absence of something, which is what Isaac Newton believed. But according to general relativity and quantum field theory, empty space like Newton imagined is impossible. For example, is an electromagnetic field with no oscillations something, or is a zero field nothing? As it turns out, nothing itself is a kind of something, and physics has redefined its language as we develop better understanding. Indeed, quantum physics tell us that a vacuum is only the low probability of a particle popping in and out of existence and string theory indicates there are likely 10 to the 500th vacuum states possible.
Although there is some good science in here, Void is primarily a text on the people of science. In addition to breaking up the science, the focus on generational rivals and personality tidbits provides a rich tapestry of biography and history. The huge reference section illustrates the research required for this book, the footnotes of which are scattered throughout the text, and are both useful and humorous—a rare combination.
In the end, Void thwarts my expectations. Instead of an explanation of the physics of nothing through black holes, Weatherall showcases the radically different conceptions of the absence of something through the history of physics, highlighting how even the definition of nothing has changed and will continue to change. I love that this book presents physics as an act in progress instead of some dusty textbook!
Recommended for popular science readers who enjoy the real-life struggles of the scientist as well as the science itself!