Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars There really is a lot to nothing., November 29, 2010
This review is from: The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe (Paperback)
It is surprising how much can be said about `nothing'. There really is a lot to say. This ranges from the mathematics of `nothing' and infinity to the origins of the universe, the ether, and one of the defining experiments in the history of science, the Michelson Morley experiment (performed in 1887). The real point is that `nothing' is the jumping off point for discussions about many complex and interesting topics. However, one thing I am grateful for is that John Barrow quickly dispenses with the jokes about nothing (`much ado about nothing', etc.).

With hindsight, all knowledge seems obvious. From the perspective of the 21st Century, it is hard to imagine how people managed with no way of representing `nothing'. Counting and computation is not easy if there is no zero place-holder - try doing calculations on Roman numerals, for example. Before the introduction of a zero place-holder (`introduction' rather than `discovery' or `invention'), the idea of nothing did not exist in anything except an abstract and unhelpful way. The introduction of the very useful zero place-holder suddenly opened up a whole range of possibilities, including whether `nothing' could exist elsewhere - can there be a vacuum, a space containing `nothing'.. The very idea of a vacuum goes against the Aristotelian maxim that `nature abhors a vacuum'.

This book by Barrow is a combination of history, and contemplating the place that a vacuum (or rather a plethora of vacuums or vacua) can have in modern cosmological theories. The history aspects are well, presented, with clear descriptions of key events such as the Magdeburg hemispheres experiment, which even has an illustration of this.

Vacua appear to exist in particle physics. Is the universe ever expanding? Barrow raises some massive questions about cosmological understanding. It seems clear that the Universe was not perfectly smooth from the beginning. It accelerated at the `right' rate, not too fast or too slow. There may be huge gaps in knowledge about how the Universe was created. However, we can marvel at the outcome, with millions and millions of stars.

The book is a tour of lots of hard ideas, and all in all, Barrow has constructed a fine edifice on the foundations of `nothing'. There is also something to say on the history of science, and how science `advances'. So don't reach for this as an easy read. It is far from that - but well written nevertheless.

Peter Morgan, Bath, UK (morganp@supanet.com)
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