Archive for October 1, 2010

There is no Zero

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 1, 2010 by telescoper

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a science fiction film made in 1957. If you haven’t seen it before its title will probably make you think it’s a downmarket B-movie, but it’s far from that. In fact it was very well received by film critics when it was first released and in 2009 was added to the Library of Congress list of films considered to be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. The  special effects used to portray the main character reducing in size were remarkable in its day, but for me the film is worth it for the wonderful ending shown in the clip:

I first saw this film on TV when I was at school and the final monologue made such an impression on me that it keeps popping into my mind, as it just did. The field of astroparticle physics encompasses cosmology, the study of the Universe on the largest scales accessible to observation (many billions of light years) as well as the smallest dimensions we can probe using the techniques of particle physics.  As the Incredible Shrinking Man realises, these are just two aspects of the same underlying unity. There’s nothing specifically new about this line of reasoning, however; I posted a poem a while ago that dates from 1675 which has a similar theme.

I decided to put the clip up now for two reasons. One is that the phrase “there is no zero” (which has passed me by on previous occasions I’ve watched the clip)  reminds of some stuff I wrote recently for a book that I’m struggling to finish, about how there’s no such thing as nothing in physics. Space is much more than the absence of matter and even empty space isn’t the same thing as nothing at all. Zero is also just the flip side of infinity and I don’t think infinity exists in nature either. When infinity appears in our theories it’s just a flag to tell us we don’t know what we’re doing. Many others have thought this thought: both Gauss and, later, Hilbert argued against the possibility of there being realised infinities in nature. My old friend and erstwhile collaborator George Ellis adheres to this view too.

The other reason for posting it is that, in these days of the Incredible Shrinking Science Budget, it’s important that we recognize and nurture the deep connections between things by supporting science in all its forms. Once we start trying to unpick its strands, the web of knowledge will all too quickly unravel.


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