There is no Zero

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.


18 Responses to “There is no Zero”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Garth Godsman and Richard Burrows, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: There is no Zero: […]

  2. If infinity doesn’t exist in nature, then how many points are in 1 meter?

  3. I agree empty space is different to nothing – but empty space still isn’t “something” – the pain that the phrase of the “fabric of space-time” can cause.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I don’t like that phrase either, but there’s no denying that space possesses attributes of various kinds so it is a “something” of some sort.

    • I’m not sure that can be proved. You do tests on the vacuum with equipment but it could be the equipment producing the results not the vacuum itself. Space could be our mind filling in the gaps between real objects.

  5. I’ve had long chats (and published on) the properties that empty space possesses – attributing space with material qualities is not a good idea.

  6. telescoper Says:

    Agreed, but if it’s not nothing and it’s not something we need to find a new word for what it is. Because I’m sure it is

  7. John Peacock Says:

    You’re sure space is? Not so easy for Dr Johnson to give it a kick, alas. But just so long as we don’t start talking about it expanding….

  8. or bending….

  9. telescoper Says:

    I think one of you guys should write a guest post on why space isn’t expanding or bending.

  10. I believe we have both written papers (or at least comments) on it.

    John’s is here;

    Some comments are made on the usefulness or otherwise of the concept of `expanding space’ in cosmology. These notes are an expanded version of material first published in 2001 but not previously available online except at Since that personal webpage has been referred to in published work, it seems sensible to give these notes a more permanent home.

  11. Yeah – I think Sean got the wrong end of the stick somewhat. The argument is that attributing “space” with physical properties is not a good one.

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