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This is the 12th book in the “Very Short Introduction” series that I have read and reviewed. Overall, I love the series, and hope to read many more, both those that have a primary focus in a scientific area, and those that are more historical or cultural. The quality is high, and they are, as the series implies, tightly written.

I was somewhat disappointed by this work, however. Admittedly, as was no doubt the intention, I was “drawn in” by the title itself. A book about “nothing.” And true, the last word in the book is “void.” The author, Frank Close, does address the issue of “nothing” in about 20% of the book. For example, our current knowledge indicates that the universe is expanding, but what is it expanding INTO? What is beyond the limit of the current universe? Rutherford did his famous experiment with deflected and bouncing alpha particles, and realized that most of the atom is “empty.” But is it, what with quantum mechanics and concepts such as “dark energy”? I felt a tighter focus on those issues was what I would be getting.

Instead, I received a lot of something, specifically a review of advancements in our scientific knowledge, from Newton through Einstein, with many familiar names along the way, from Maxwell to Bohr. I feel I can ALWAYS use a refresher course, with familiar aspects reinforced, and other new nuggets of insight and information becoming available on each read of this story, much like I might find in (yet another) book on the Vietnam War. In Close’s case, I find it comforting to again hear that many of the concepts of modern science are counterintuitive. Close briefly covers the concept of “lambda,” Hubble’s constant, which continues to nag me as a “Universal Fudge Factor,” a concept that always led to the right answer when I was a college sophomore.

Structurally, I felt his review of scientific history was a pleasant meander, but lacked a rigid, purposeful framework. For example, sandwiched between Plank’s constant and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic radiation, Close treats us to the following factoid: “The electron in a hydrogen atom is apparently orbiting around the central proton at a speed of 1/137 of that of light. An orbit of 10 (to the minus 9th) metres at a speed of about a thousand kilometres per second implies some million billions circuits each second.” So? And how does that advance my understanding of the void?

Still, there is the 20%, and my poor brain might have grasped a few concepts from the “Higgs vacuum.” Impressively, all of this was on the table, in 2009, when this book was published, three years before the confirmation of the existence of “God’s particle,” as it is sometimes called, the Higgs boson, with its massive weight that can arise in such a vacuum. In ways, some old concepts, such as “the ether,” are recycled and updated via concepts like the Higgs vacuum. It is beyond my powers of comprehension (and perhaps even interest) to consider how the universe was behaving at 10 to the minus 33 seconds after the Big Bang, when the temperatures were 10 to the 27 degrees (one assumes, Kelvin), but I do admire that very, very slender portion of humanity, an exclusive club, for sure, who contemplates such ideas… which may, in some off-hand way impact the mass of humanity, as Einstein’s early 20th century musings on a train have.

I have found books such as "Exoplanets" and 13.8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe and the Theory of Everything much more coherent and informative in terms of a cogent exposition of our current understanding of the universe. Close’s book was marred by meanders and redundancies. Still, a worthwhile read. 4-stars.
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on March 16, 2015
It's a very ambitious book that suffers slightly from the Very Short Introduction format. It begins with an interesting history of what people thought could exist in vacuum. It then goes on with a history of how science progressed towards the view of vacuum, and with dispensing theories of ether. The book then spends some time explaining relativity and quantum theory, before giving a quantum view of the vacuum. While the beginning of the book was interesting historically, and some of the points near the end were also interesting, the book was rushed and didn't really have time to build to a comprehensible conclusion. The middle third of the book felt like a whirwind tour of Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and Six Not So Easy Pieces books on popular science. However, the author relied only on analogy and not on math to communicate his concepts. This made the book a significantly faster read at the cost of becoming significantly harder to comprehend once the physics reached a level where analogies failed to come easily. Overall, I don't regret buying or reading the book, but I would probably recommend anyone interested in it starting with Feynman's popular science books before finding a meatier look at this subject.
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on February 10, 2010
People have been speculating about "Why is there something rather than nothing" for as long as we have documented history. Frank Close has written a valuable book, explaining the different speculations about the nature of "nothing" and different ideas about whether it's even possible. He begins with Aristotle's idea that "nature abhors a vacuum", and discusses other early Greek thinkers on what the primordial "nothing" might have been- some thought it was water or one of the other elements. What is really interesting is when Close discusses the history of modern Physics, from Newton to Einstein, and how the idea of "nothing" or a vacuum has changed. In that respect, this book is a good introduction to basic physics in its own right. Essentially, when all matter is taken away, you still have electromagnetic waves, which is "something." He then gets into the strange world of quantum mechanics and symmetry-breaking. In regard to quantum mechanics- I can't put it nearly as well as Close does, but basically due to the Uncertainty Principle- that you cannot know both a subatomic particle's position and momentum at the same time- there will inherently be some form of energy in a state of "nothing", and energy can produce mass, or matter. In regard to symmetry breaking- order forms when matter goes from high-energy states to low-energy states, like when water freezes to make ice. At the time of the Big Bang, matter was dense and almost unbelievably hot, and only when it cooled down, or "froze" could any kind of order develop. So we are at least a little closer to why there is something. But as Close notes at the end, we still will wonder why quantum uncertainty was coded into the universe in the first place. This is an excellent book that will help you think about the nature of reality. We humans don't understand everything about this strange universe, and in my view, probably never will. And that's the good news.
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on December 30, 2010
I wish I had read this book sixty years ago; unfortunately it wasn't available back then and today the lessons in this book are not new but Professor Close takes a step sideways and gives those like me another view of what is to science is "a partially reveled masterpiece".
This little book wasn't easy for me to read but it was worth every minute spent doing it.
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on April 11, 2015
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch

This short book well discusses the physics of "emptiness," though neglecting its psychological and phenomenological problematics. Towards the end it winds up with some speculations on why is there anything, such as "the compact universe emerged from the era of quantum gravity, which is when time took over from imaginary time" (p. 143). However, the real issue of "nothing" is why there exists anything at all. This is a matter for metaphysics and philosophy of the mind to ponder, not for physics - which has more than enough to do to try and understand what is, such as the nature of black energy and material.

To the credit of the author, he mentions that our view of reality is "based on our macroscopic sense of time and three space dimensions" (ibid), to which should be added the amazing ability of some humans to think in terms of imaginary concepts put into symbolic, usually mathematical language, such as multi-dimensionality and multiverses, as well as explaining reality in terms that seem "magic" for most of us, such as quantum physics. He also, wisely, refers to what is "far beyond our conceptual ability" (ibid).

But this is not enough. The idea of "nothing" is far beyond the domains of science. It requires exploration as part of metaphysics and of the philosophy of the embodies mind, which leads to recognition of inbuilt limits of maximal human understanding, including of "nothingness," however our specie dislikes this line of thinking (as in part taken up in my recent book).

This issue, put differently, also faces religions. No theology presumes to take up the question how God was created, discussing instead the transcendental in terms of negative theology and God as "eternal," beyond human understanding, and to be taken on faith based on revelation.

Accordingly, the book is mistitled: it should have been named "emptiness," with the distinction between it and "nothing" being explained in the introduction. A short introduction on "nothing" in its real enigmatic sense, even if there may not be much to say on it, is still waiting to be written for the Oxford Short Introduction Series.

Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on March 13, 2011
I very much enjoyed making my way through this book. My background in advanced physics and mathematics is limited to about the second year in University, and as such I was pleasantly surprised by how well the author was able to explain what is for most people a mind bending subject. It discusses a fundamental question that arises in most peoples' minds, namely; where do we come from?, and it does so with occasional pleasant humour. In fact having read the book I thought that it would be nice to hear the man lecture. Whomever does pick up this work, and does not have a strong academic background will probably have to reread passages on occasion, indeed I found myself putting the book down and trying to picture in my mind just what it was that I had just read. I had previously also purchased Close's book on Antimatter, and am now looking forward to reading it.AntimatterThe Void (A Brief Insight)
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on March 26, 2017
love this one in the series great book
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on February 23, 2013
I enjoyed reading this book. It was presented in a comprehensive and approachable manner without requiring a PhD in physics. It left me with a feeling of awe and wonder as to the "beginning" of the universe. It never ceases to amaze me how much we don't know yet are willing to accept as fact in order to sustain our feeling of place and belonging in the cosmos. Reading about the theories of existence (i.e. the beginning of the cosmos in which we exist) proposed can reaffirm ones awe at the deceptively simple fact that we exist yet we may never fully come to grasps with the answer to "why" we exist. A thought provoking and enjoyable book.
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on December 10, 2014
I was rereading the 1958 book on existentialism, Irrational Man, when I came across this book by Frank Close. I downloaded the sample, thinking it was about metaphysical nothing (maybe the physical and the metaphysical are not all that different??). I found the book so readable and fascinating that I bought the whole thing. I guess the overall lesson from Close is that nothing does not exist (quantum vacua are seething) and the entire universe is as close to nothing (on a zero-sum basis) as we can find. I have since moved on to The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene at Close's recommendation. It is not quite as readable, but I feel more conversant with String Theory now.
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on February 4, 2014
"Nothing" is a malapropism title for this book. We think of the vacuum of space as being nothing; but this is not quite right. The book tends to explain the empty space that takes up most of our universe and the space in atoms. What is it? What existed before the "Big Bang" Think about it!

I would recommend a little knowledge of particle physics. Don't worry it is not that deep or mathy; but interesting. This book is small like a pocket book and is part of a large library of such books from the Oxford press.
I believe that i will try some other books in the library to see if they are as good for an introduction.
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