This discussion is about the concept of “nothing,” or the absence of physical particles in the universe. We’ll also examine how this relates to mathematical thinking.

I remember when I was in college some 40 years ago, I used to contemplate thoughts of infinity and the results of dividing by zero. A physics professor once told me not to think about those things because it would drive myself insane.

I didn’t listen to him. I spent the rest of my life studying scientific and philosophical essays by scholars on the subject.

## A Simple Explanation of Nothing

You might think there’s nothing to it, but “nothing” is actually quite enormous. It makes up the sum total of everything that is nonexistent, which is the emptiness between all matter.

Matter, on the other hand, is mass that occupies space. However, that mass contains a lot of nothing between its molecules and within its atoms. That means there is an entire universe of nonexistence within our physical world.

## What Is Nonexistence Like?

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, nonexistence is the negation of being.

There are several ways to refer to this enormous entity:

• zero
• null
• empty
• vacuum
• void

All of these refer to the idea of nonexistence. There is more of this “nothingness” in the universe than there is physical existence. However, none of this is empty. We need to define what “empty” means in order to understand “nothing”. Emptiness can be filled endlessly with more nothing without ever becoming full.

That’s the beauty of nothing. It’s endless. It never runs out. It’s timeless.

## Mathematical Explanation of Nothingness

Charles Seife, professor of journalism at New York University and author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, explains nothingness as follows:

Zero minus zero becomes a null set. That’s as close to nothing as I can imagine. And if you do the reverse, you put a null set in another null set, you create zero.— Charles Seife, “Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea”

The Egyptians hated zero. They did just fine building the pyramids without it. Roman numerals have no representation for zero.{1} It didn’t matter because the Romans never applied their numerals to arithmetic.

## The History of the Number Zero

The Greek philosopher Aristotle never accepted the concept of division by zero. He found too many paradoxes with it. I could explain the problems he ran into with it, but it’s beyond the scope of this article.

Suffice it to say that we interpret division by zero as infinity. Zero can go into anything an infinite number of times.

The ancient Greeks were aware of the concept of zero. After all, they knew when they had no stones.

And the Egyptians, well, they eventually acquired the use of the number zero from the Babylonians.{2}

## Did the Universe Come from Nothing?

Quantum physics already shows us how a particle can go from existence to nonexistence and back again. This is quantum fluctuation.

It may actually be moving through time, so once it is no longer in the present we no longer see it. We might consider it to have become “nothing” or “void” of existence.

Even while nonexistent, the energy never dissipates. Einstein’s formula E=MC2applies very well.

Energy and mass cannot be made or destroyed. It simply changes from one to another as per his formula.

So if the universe came from nothing, where was all that energy before the beginning? There are two theories.

One is the Big Bang, which works on the theory that all matter (and therefore it’s energy equivalent) was compressed into a single black hole. That compression is possible if you consider the idea that the Universe is mostly nothing.

Edward Tyron, an American scientist and a professor of physics at Hunter College in New York City, had a different theory. In 1973, he proposed the idea of a zero-energy universe that emerged from a vacuum of energy. That is to say, it emerged from nothing—where all the positive mass-energy is balanced by the negative energy of gravitation.{3}

## Nothingness in Quantum Physics and String Theory

Why am I bringing up String Theory? Because I’m going to show you how we can misinterpret the concept of “nothing” when something truly does exist. We simply may not be aware of it for certain reasons.

In order to understand string theory, you have to understand that time is the fourth dimension in mathematical terms.

Our three-dimensional world exists in the present. However, it also moves forward in time.

To understand this better, consider the fact that one dimension is simply a line. You can only move back and forth in the length of that line.

If you go 90 degrees perpendicular to that line, you create a plain (a flat surface) where you can move in two dimensions: length and width.

If you go 90 degrees perpendicular to that flat surface, you are moving in three dimensions: length, width and height.

If you consider another 90-degree turn, the three-dimensional space that we live in moves perpendicular at a 90-degree angle through the fourth dimension: Time.

Note, however, that we can’t see into that fourth dimension. We can’t see the past or the future. We can only remember the past, and we can only anticipate the future.

String theory shows how we can observe an object wiggling around in a three-dimensional space. However, once that object wiggles in a fourth dimension it leaves our awareness.

It still exists, but we can’t observe anything in dimensions higher than ours. Just like a cartoon character drawn on a two-dimensional piece of paper can’t visualize what is happening above or below that flat surface.

As I think about this object wiggling around in a fourth dimension, I realize it is traveling through time because time is the fourth dimension. This consideration brings to mind that quantum physics may be related to string theory.

Quantum physics has shown that particles can move from one location to another instantaneously without existing anywhere in between. String Theory can help explain how this works.

The particle is simply wiggling into the fourth dimension, and once it’s there it is outside of our awareness. Eventually it wiggles back into our three-dimensional world in a different location, and we see it again.

Does that mean that it became nothing and then later became something again? If that particle is simply unobservable, then who’s to say that it is nothing? Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I wonder if that’s why the Egyptians hated zero. Maybe they knew better. Maybe they knew something.

## A Little Fun with Comprehension of Nothingness

A little humor never hurts, especially when we get so deep into these scientific and philosophical discussion. I’ll leave you with this thought: One might say that “something” is the void between the emptiness.

What that means is that once we “get something” we have a complete understanding of that which was once a void in our knowledge.

That’s my way of applying string theory to human comprehension. Imagine that! You’ve heard it here first. I made that up.

Remember that it has nothing to do with “something” being a physical substance, which is also mostly nothing. That actually is another discussion that I get further into in my article: Why the Universe Is Mostly Empty Space.