Features

doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.89 Published online 20 June 2012

Science and Spirituality – Decoding nothingness

'Nothingness' is one of the most enigmatic spiritual concepts challenging the logical human mind. Pawan Dhar tries to scientifically examine the composition and dynamics of this abstract-sounding nothingness.

The Indian vedas say that 'nothingness' is the ultimate source of knowledge – the final human frontier beyond which nothing else remains to be known. According to the scriptures, nothingness forms the chassis of 'somethingness' in its most subtle form. They say nothingness is not only the source of reactants but also the ultimate solvent into which somethingness finally dissolves.

Considering that nothingness has been given such great importance in classic religious texts, it would be prudent to investigate this concept from the logical and scientific perspective and see if there are any spiritual correlates.

Defining nothingness

Literally speaking when there isn't anything, it's nothing. However, the meaning of the expression "isn't anything" depends upon one's perception. For example, absolutely still air may appear 'nothing'. However, a gentle breeze that caresses the skin proves that air has 'something'. Thus we might infer that nothingness does not equal emptiness.

The question is: does absolute emptiness exist? If yes, how can we distinguish it from nothingness? What is nothingness composed of? How does the transformation from 'nothingness to somethingness' happen? Can we create something from nothing in the lab?

The content of the Universe

The Universe is believed to be composed of 72-73% gravitationally repulsive dark energy, 20% gravitationally attractive dark matter and 4-5% of atoms1. Dark energy is the name given to the mysterious energy-fluid that causes cosmic expansion in the old universe. Dark matter is believed to be made up of exotic particles like axions or WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles). The rest ~5% is made of everything that we know as planets, stars, living and non living matter.

This lends further support to the fact that nothingness is not equal to emptiness. Based on available scientific evidence, some more generalizations have been made: 1. Empty space contains 'virtual' particles that continually form and disappear. 2. The so-called empty space possesses its own energy. This energy does not get diluted with expansion of space as it is the property of space itself.

Unanswered questions

Given that nothing is far more abundant than something (24:1), it is interesting to ask: why was something formed in the first place? What determines this ratio? Is this ratio constant? What would happen if the universe was completely nothing? Is that theoretically possible? What are the dynamics of the forward and reverse reactions i.e., converting nothing into something and back? Can we capture the transformation mathematically?

Also given that universe is believed to have been seeded by quantum fluctuations2, is the spontaneous formation of real particles and their final dissolution into virtual particles the very nature of creation itself? What is the substrate for soul synthesis? Is it dark energy or something else? Are there more forms of energy yet to be discovered?

With the rapid development of high throughput data-gathering technologies and novel ways of studying data, the field of cosmology is undergoing a major shift. What was considered strictly spiritual has now entered the domain of physics.

A fresh look at E=mc2

Nearly a century ago, Einstein proposed the theory of relativity and the classical energy-mass equation E=mc2.

If we swap the terms of this equation, we get m = E/c2. This is an important but unappreciated variation which means if we "slow down energy by the square of speed of light, we get mass"!

Was this another way of saying how something is created from nothing? Further, if this equation is complete and accurate, the grand challenge is to find a technology to slow down energy by a huge factor and artificially transform energy into mass.

Under extreme conditions, virtual particles in vacuum can be converted into real particles3. Though in theory one can make light out of nothingness, it is unclear how to custom-make a matter of choice from nothingness?

In 1948, Hedrik Casimir and Dirk Polder proposed the existence of a force in vacuum that operates at the quantum level resulting in the attraction of two mirrors placed very close to each other. The alteration of force in vacuum is popularly known as Casimir effect4.The force acts over extremely small distances. On a submicron scale it becomes the dominating force between two uncharged conducting surfaces5.This provides scientific evidence of force existing in vacuum. The vacuum of space is believed to be an unlimited source of energy called 'zero point energy'.

From spirituality to science and back

The identification of nothingness and questions about its composition and dynamics interested humans thousands of years back. Instead of outside, they looked for the 'stem cell of nothingness' within. From the scientific perspective, the justification for finding nothingness within comes from the fact that atoms are 99.99% space. The rest of the atom is not understood very clearly!

Turning outwardly-bound senses in the reverse direction, the science of breathing and the science of mantras were invented. People discovered that the cosmos that existed outside the body was the same that existed within. In contrast to the partial knowledge from sky surveys, the whole 'within-cosmos' study seemed to generate more knowledge.

Irrespective of individual perceptions, both saints and scientists agree that the universe has no beginning and no end. The universe is infinite, enigmatic and based on laws, many of which we do not understand.

In future, the sharp boundaries between science and spirituality will blur. The grand challenge is to understand the origin and evolution of nothingness and the laws that operate in the quantum space of dark matter.

This article is the second in a series entitled 'Science and spirituality'.


References

  1. Bergström, L. Dark Matter Evidence, Particle Physics Candidates and Detection Methods. Ann. Phys-Berlin doi: 10.1002/andp.201200116 (2012)
  2. Turner, M. S. Quarks and the Cosmos. Science 315, 59-61 (2007) | Article | PubMed |
  3. Wilson, C. M. et al. Observation of the dynamical Casimir effect in a superconducting circuit. Nature 479, 376-379 (2011) | Article | PubMed |
  4. Casimir, H. B. G. et al. The Influence of Retardation on the London-van der Waals Forces. Phys. Rev. 73, 360-372 (1948) | Article | ISI |
  5. Mohideen, U. et al. Precision Measurement of the Casimir Force from 0.1 to 0.9 µm. Phys. Rev. Lett. 81, 45-49 (1998)