From our modern perspective, it is easy to deride the wranglings of medieval scholars over the number of angels that could dance of the head of a pin and whether Nature abhors a vacuum. But as John Barrow reveals in this timely and important book, new discoveries in science have shown that these scholars were right to suspect that Nothing has hidden depths.
It is a concept shot through with paradoxes: even innocent-looking phrases like "Nothing is real" flip their meanings as we ponder them, like those illusions that look like a vase one moment, and opposing faces the next. Nothing is fertile, too, as Barrow shows via a stunning trick that allows every number one can think of to be built out of nothing at all.
But his book is about far more than mind games. Arguably, the most important discovery of 20th-century physics is that there is no such thing as nothing: even the tightest vacuum is teeming with subatomic particles popping in and out of existence, according to the dictates of quantum theory. Now, many astronomers suspect that such "vacuum effects" may have triggered the Big Bang itself, filling our universe with matter. Indeed, the very latest observations suggest that vacuum effects will dictate the ultimate fate of the universe.
As an internationally respected cosmologist, Barrow does a fine job of explaining these new discoveries. The result is a book that is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why there will be much ado about Nothing among scientists in the years ahead. --Robert Matthews, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
Nothing's conceptual origins were fraught with fear and disbelief, and only three civilizations independently discovered it. How Nothing went from a Babylonian place holder, a Mayan decoration in the empty space where no number fell and an Indian dot signifying all the current aspects of zero, to one of the most essential elements in mathematics, physics and cosmology, is the subject of this enlightening history. Barrow, a Cambridge professor of mathematical sciences and author of Theories of Everything and other books, follows Nothing's evolution in a clear, well-organized narrative. It is specific but neither confusing nor at any point slow, and while its more difficult scientific content will cause it to appeal less to general readers than K.C. Cole's The Hole in the Universe (Forecasts, Jan. 22), there are still plenty of tidbits and trivia that readers will want to share. For, as Barrow demonstrates, pondering the zero can lead to strange discoveries. Two adjacent ships on a calm sea with a brewing swell can be pulled together by a mysterious force similar to that pulling two plates together in a vacuum. Also, we keep time in units of 60 because it was the second base (along with 10) that the Sumerians used in counting. Nothing informs infinite aspects of life and the world at large, and Barrows does an excellent job of bringing its effects to light; plentiful illustrations clarify concepts and bring them into focus. (Apr.)Forecast: While this may appeal less to general readers than Cole's book, science aficionados will greatly enjoy the insights, the detail and the calculations.
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