Book Review: Nothing edited by Jeremy Webb

This is a book about nothing – quite literally. It makes something of nothing, quite literally about that too. You will find nothing in this book, lots and lots of nothing and you will find it quite frankly one of the most interesting books you will ever read. Even though it is about nothing, featuring nothing, there is a lot of nothing. Ok, the bad puns have already run out but I hope you get the picture here.

This is a New Scientist volume about nothing. I can’t really put it more plainly than that. It’s about the nothings that inhabit our world, the spaces of nothing and the zero state of nothing. The subtitle is From Absolute Nothing to Cosmic Oblivion. It’s a history of the number zero, how medieval Europe struggled with the existential crisis that such a number would create. It’s about zero as a mathematical concept and a physical number, its importance to astronomy, to physics and to science in general.

It’s also about the various zero states that make up arbitrary things such as temperature. We all know that the celsius scale goes from 0-100 with 0 being the point at which water freezes and 100 being at the point it turns to water. But what about Fahrenheit, why is that set the way it is? Why do we need and use so many temperature scales? What exists between the stars? Can we actually create a vacuum? What existed before the Big Bang? While the answer to that question is “nothing”, it’s not quite the “nothing” that you perceive it to be – thereby challenging one of the concepts and strawman arguments that creationists pose against Big Bang Theory.

It also goes off on a tangent into loosely themed “nothing” related subjects. From homeopathy (which is quite literally nothing) to the placebo effect which helps feel better while using nothing, this makes you think about the physical word around you. It presents nothing as a concept, as a philosophy, as a mathematical certainty and as the absence of something – it will show you ways of thinking about nothing in ways you’d never previously considered.

I particularly liked the studies of the number 0 and how it provided so much angst for some societies throughout history. Also of interest is what comes next for the universe, the various theories for where the universe is heading billions of years from now. This may change your worldview, it may go above your head or it may teach you nothing you do not already know.

The only real complaint I have about this book is that it feels a real mish-mash. That’s kind of understandable when you’re creating a book from edited articles that once featured in New Scientist but it feels that the editors haven’t quite thought as much about its structure. You will find your attention drift at times too as seemingly unrelated sections get shunted together.

They explain the general idea of working it the way they did, but it didn’t quite work for me. It’s confusing and seemingly unrelated in places – a shame because they had the chance to structure it in a way that feels organic and natural with nothing being a natural state of the universe.

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