Why I dedicated a book about nothing to my future grandchildren
The Telegraph Hay Festival is taking place from 23 May to 2 June 2013 on the edge of the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park. We’re delighted to have many Oxford University Press authors participating in the Festival this year. OUPblog will be bringing you a selection of blog posts from these authors so that even if you can’t join us in Hay-on-Wye, you won’t miss out. Don’t forget you can also follow @hayfestival and view the event programme here.
Frank Close will be appearing at The Telegraph Hay Festival on Friday 31 May 2013 at 5:30 p.m. to speak about Nothing. More information and tickets.
By Frank Close
I want to say something about Nothing. Specifically, not just the book but the part that no one, or very few, read carefully: the dedication. Nothing originally appeared in hardback in 2007 titled The Void, and was dedicated thus: “For Lizzie and John”.
Back then, Lizzie, my daughter, was engaged to John. At their wedding the following year, the chaplain of Exeter College said it was the first time that she had married two people who had had a book about nothing dedicated to them. Afterwards, I explained the real meaning: The Void was dedicated “for” and not “to” the couple. This is why.
The inspiration for Nothing was an enigma that has troubled me since childhood. If you take away the Earth, Moon, stars, everything material, what remains? Before making the trivial response – “nothing” – consider that in the process we too have been removed, so there is no one to be aware that there is nothing. Is the result a universe that is like some form of empty container, or by having removed conscious awareness, has the container also gone, the concept of universe itself been done away with? In what sense does the universe exist, if full of inert matter, with no one to be aware of the fact? Does the universe still exist for us after we die?
Now this question leads into labyrinths of possibilities concerning religious opinion, so in the book I posed it another way: did the universe exist for me in 1066? For me it didn’t but for William the Conqueror it did. Go back deeper into the past. Ten billion years ago there were no conscious beings aware of the universe, and gravity’s dance played on with no one being aware. Although this epoch of “pre-consciousness” contained no life, and must have been like some grand extension of my egocentric pre-1945 universe, nonetheless the same atoms that existed back then are what we are made of today, enabling us to view evidence for that past by means of telescopes looking deep across space, and back in time.
An individual atom cannot think, yet a large number, when configured in a highly ordered and unlikely combination, can believe that they are you. The same atoms configured in countless numbers of other ways will have no such consciousness. Richard Dawkins once said “we are the lucky ones for we shall die,” reminding us that there is an infinite number of possible forms of DNA all but a few billions of which will never burst into consciousness. What is the universe for the never-to-be-born or for those not yet alive?
The book itself deals with the quest to understand the nature of nothing – the search for the vacuum, and the mysterious insights that have emerged about it. Empty space is not empty, but full of things, such as gravitation, and quantum particle of matter and antimatter bubbling in and out of existence. During 2012 physicists found the Higgs boson, the proof that the cosmos is full of a mysterious ether, known as the Higgs field. “Nothing” is definitely filled with something, though we are still trying to understand quite what this stuff is.
But back to my dedication. In 2007 I mused whether I would ever have grandchildren. If I did, their atoms already existed, somewhere in the earth, air, and water of our planet. By the miracles of biology, two machines, collections of atoms that call themselves Lizzie and John, might one day combine some of those atoms and fuel them, eventually enabling them to burst into life. So the dedication was “for” them, in the hope that they might turn some inert atoms into living something.
The miracle has happened. Today I watch Max and Jack, who run, shout, and wear T-shirts from CERN proclaiming the equations of the Higgs field and the standard model of particles and forces. As yet, they understand nothing of this. In some future their conscious atoms may create concepts that no one yet has realised. Atoms can be creative, which is yet another profound mystery.
My most recent book, published in 2012, was titled The Infinity Puzzle. It deals with the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, and the ideas about the all-pervading essence – the Higgs field. The “Infinity” referred to a mathematical conundrum, that existed 50 years ago, and which was eventually solved thanks in part to the work of Peter Higgs. But the dedication alludes to that most profound mystery, and brings our tale to a close: “For Max and Jack, whose emergence out of The Void is an Infinite Puzzle”.
Frank Close is Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University and former head of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. During his career he has worked closely with CERN, home of the LHC. He is the author of Nothing: A Very Short Introduction, and his other recent books include The Infinity Puzzle, Neutrino, and Antimatter. Follow Frank Close on Twitter: @CloseFrank.
Image credits: (1) ‘The Void/Nothing dedication’ and (2) ‘The Infinity Puzzle dedication’ by Nicola Burton via Instagram.