Some Thoughts On Nothing

Given the title of my PhD – The Poetry of Nowhere – I needed to define exactly what I meant by ‘nowhere’; stripping the concept back as far as it would go. Susan Sontag’s assertion that ‘there is no such thing as empty space. As long as a human eye is looking there is always something to see,’ gave me a starting point. This stripping back allowed me to slowly build my arguments from the ground up and have more control over their direction, rather than drowning in a sea of irrelevant or semi-relevant materials.

I wanted to challenge Sontag’s assertion by working out what an ‘empty space’ at its most empty consisted of. It wasn’t going to be an empty room, or an empty house, or a ghost town. These are things that have been emptied, but they are not an embodiment of emptiness, or nowhereness, or nothingness. ​

Nowhere and nothing are very subjective terms, however, and subject to gradation. For example, what may be ‘nowhere’ to one person may be a bustling town to another. £10 may be nothing to the rich, but riches to the poor. Nothing is not an absolute.

 In order to find out what ‘real’ nothing and nowhere consisted of, I spoke to a Cosmology and a physicist, who between them helped to explain the concept of an astronomical void and its make-up. Although they agreed that ‘nothing’, ‘nowhere’ and ‘void’ are far from empty, the available definitions were a cause for much discussion. This led me to a book called Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing (Wetherall, 2016)that alerted me to the facts that nothing and nowhere are often interchangeable and that nothing is subject to at least four hotly disputed definitions.

Of the four definitions, two require far greater knowledge of maths than I can comprehend, a third is a thought experiment in which one imagine layers of reality – including matter, dark matter the curvature of space/time and spontaneous quantum events – are removed. I’ve chosen to utilise the fourth definition ‘a mean density less than a tenth of the average density of the universe’ as my working definition of void.

This simple definition lends itself to poetry more readily, as deeper exploration indicates that a void has a definable and recognisable structure. Apart from the above-mentioned theoretical void in which all matter, dark matter and including the curvature and fabric of space is removed, the definitions all conclude that ‘nothing’ is never empty and a literal nowhere doesn’t and can’t exist. Nowhere is similarly problematic in that it cannot exist as a literal concept. Intergalactic space may seem like nowhere, but in saying ‘intergalactic’ we have just positioned it between two or more galaxies giving a definable triangulated ‘where’.

So, what was I looking for?  Was I to define nowhere as ‘somewhere I don’t like,’ ‘somewhere without facilities,’ ‘A place of little value’ or even a real town called Nowhere in Oklahoma, USA, population 617.

Rather pleasingly, this abandoned house is quite literally in the middle of Nowhere.  Probably warrants a poem of its own…​

So… I found the biggest void, the biggest NOTHING I could find. 

The space between galaxies.

Surely that has to be empty?​

Surely that has to be a complete void?

Surely, that has to be nowhere?​

Well, sadly not. The very fact that I just placed the space between two galaxies gives the void a where. It can be triangulated. It has a ‘where-ness’. It’s not a particularly interesting where, but it is most definitely somewhere. The first lesson learned was that concept of nowhere is subjective.  Fair enough, that frees me up to explore a lot of places and write poetry if nowhere is really somewhere, nothing is really something. But…​

Looking further into the void – ignoring Nietzsche’s warning – I found it fascinating.  Firstly, I need to define ‘void’.  To my limited, non-scientific knowledge, there are at least four definitions of ‘Void’ within the scientific/cosmological community. Two of those definitions are so wrapped in maths I haven’t a hope in hell of understanding it, let alone explaining it, the third is a thought experiment that strips back layers of reality until everything is slowly taken away – from matter, dark matter, the curvature of space and so on and the fourth is, at face value, remarkably simple:​

Voids have a mean density less than a tenth of the average density of the universe. To me, that’s quite understandable but less than a tenth does not mean – in common terms – nothing. This supposed emptiness contains among other things, dust, spontaneous quantum events… And if there’s something, then it has to be somewhere. So, there goes nothing and there goes nowhere.​

I mean, it’s hardly definitive proof, but it makes the concepts of nothing, nowhere and void – as commonly understood – slightly shaky. ​

But, there’s something else here. Nothing or void or nowhere has structure.  It has a shape.  Well.  A negative shape consisting of spheres and walls. The spheres can be hundreds of megaparsecs wide – for baffling context, A single parsec is about 31 trillion kilometres and our galaxy is about 32 parsecs wide. Even more mind blowing a void, a supposed nothing; a supposed nowhere, can contain entire galaxy clusters. The concepts of nothing and nowhere have completely exploded.  Everywhere is nowhere. Everything is nothing and vice versa.​

Now, I realise this may be getting a little fanciful, but when I first heard of the ‘Spheres and walls’ structures. The first thing I thought of was this:​

Then this:

And then, to a lesser extent, Yggdrasil.

So, from the structure of nothing and nowhere, suddenly there are inroads to the physical and spiritual make up of whole worlds. From, nothing, there are whole worlds of inspiration. It appears that expressions of both science and spirituality are intrinsically linked to the fabric of the universe.  But, being a good atheist boy, I’m more likely to say ‘what an amazing coincidence.’

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