If you took enough philosophy in college it's extremely likely you came to despise Jean-Paul Sartre, or at least felt some annoyance at the damage his writing did to both Being and Nothingness.
(Briefly – and as accurately as I can bear to relate it – Sartre ruined the reputation of existentialism, of Being and of Nothingness by arguing the only things that can Be are those we perceive and that Nothingness has only itself to blame for our not noticing it, which is the reason it doesn't exist.*)
Nothingness, it turns out, is a lot more complicated than that. Worse, it's more complicated even than Sartre made it (though he did stick to the guideline that requires great philosophers to present ideas at least 15 percent more complicated than they are able to write clearly enough for anyone else to understand).
A video of a 2009 Krauss lecture on nothingness got more than a million hits on YouTube and inspired the just-published A Universe from Nothing, according to an NYT story this morning that violated the Bad Philosophical Writing Ratio by presenting a number of very complicated ideas but explaining them clearly.
There are at least three different kinds of nothingness, according to science professor and quantum physical acolyte Lawrence Krauss, who teaches at the University of Arizona but, more importantly, wrote The Physics of Star Trek and, apparently, got them right.
The first is the traditional meaning of open space – an area with: 1. Nothing in it that humans can understand or 2. Nothing in it humans care about. Depending on the scale you're using, both your foot and the rock you're about to kick both qualify because, as the NYT's Dennis Overbye wrote, "both the rock and your foot are mostly empty space, prevented from intermingling by electric fields."
The other two kinds of nothingness are less crowded.
The second type contains nothing – not even space or time, though lacking both would make it 1. Very difficult to find if you had an appointment there and 2. Impossible to arrive at promptly whether or not you were there on time.
There is so much nothing in this second example, Quantum theorists have proposed whole universes could appear "there" spontaneously as little bubbles of space/time (though without space it would be hard to prove the bubbles of space/time had arrived and without time it would be impossible to say when or for how long.)
"There is a deeper nothing in which even the laws of physics are absent," Overbye wrote.
That's not as surprising as the place filled with nothing but lacking a place, if only because the Laws of Physics are actually Laws of Physicists – the universe they describe doesn't obey laws, it just does what it wants while physicists try to keep up.
Krauss explains where the consistent behavior described in scientific laws as probably coming from elsewhere – in this case the multiverse, a random but endless succession of universes created by probability, reflecting probability or probably not there at all, each of which has its own physical laws.
Why the framework of whatever it is that makes the inanimate behave in consistent has to come from somewhere while entire universes can appear from nothingness (No. 2) carrying travel versions of their own space and time with them (like self-booting flash drives that let you carry your computer in your pocket) I don't know.
Krauss suggests one other thing, at least as articulated by the NYT: Quantum physics suggests some absurd percentage of the mass of the universe is invisible "dark energy." Krauss suggests dark energy is "the negative pressure of nothing."
That implies the universe we know is not filled with something pushing it outward so that it continues to expand.
Instead, the universe is a small chunk of Something surrounded on all sides by Nothing, which pulls it in every direction like a lost balloon rising through the atmosphere, growing larger as the air thins and soft vacuum pulls at it from all sides until the pressure driving the balloon either drains away, or the balloon pops.
It's possible the universe will just return to nothingness at some point, Krauss said in is video lecture, though if it does it will probably be long, long after anyone worrying about now has returned to some variety of nothingness.
So, unless you're studying quantum physics or are un-fond of sanity and a universe it's possible to visualize, it's better to just see that level of quantumesence as simply the religion of physicists, more demonstrably valid than most other religions but with just as little direct impact on the life of anyone in this universe, at least until it pops, or fades away or turns out to have been nothing in the first place anyway.
Sartre, btw, was far from the only philosopher ever to go mano a' zero against the concept of nothingness, but he was close to the most humorless.
I prefer Rene Descartes, who did something similar to what Sartre did with the whole does-exist/doesn't exist thing.
Descartes, at least, said his piece a lot more succinctly (Cogito Ergo Sum) and inspired my favorite un-dirty joke:
Rene Descartes walked into a bar.
The bartender said: "Can I get you anything?"
Descartes replied: "I think not," and disappeared.
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