Void

The Strange Physics of Nothing

James Owen Weatherall

This title is copublished with Yale University Press as part of the Foundational Questions in Science series. It is only available for purchase through Yale University Press or your favorite bookstore.

James Owen Weatherall’s previous book, The Physics of Wall Street, was a New York Times best-seller and named one of Physics Today’s five most intriguing books of 2013.

In his newest volume, he takes on a fundamental concept of modern physics: nothing. The physics of stuff—protons, neutrons, electrons, and even quarks and gluons—is at least somewhat familiar to most of us. But what about the physics of nothing?

Isaac Newton thought of empty space as nothingness extended in all directions, a kind of theater in which physics could unfold. But both quantum theory and relativity tell us that Newton’s picture can’t be right. Nothing, it turns out, is an awful lot like something, with a structure and properties every bit as complex and mysterious as matter.

In his signature lively prose, Weatherall explores the very nature of empty space—and solidifies his reputation as a science writer to watch.

Prologue: Much Ado about Nothing / 3
1. The Plenum and the Void / 13
2. Waves of Space Itself / 45
3. The Nothing Nothings / 85
Epilogue: Why Nothing Really Matters: Quantum Gravity and Beyond / 123
Acknowledgments / 137
Notes / 139
Bibliography / 165
Index / 189

Jim Weatherall’s account of the ‘science of the vacuum’ covers some of the most fascinating aspects of physics with a unique combination of insight, reliability and wit: a pleasure to read for the curious reader and an invaluable source for scientists and philosophers.

Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons in Physics

Science progresses, but the words we use to talk about the world—and phrases like ‘empty space’— often stay the same. James Owen Weatherall tells the fascinating story of how our conception of nothingness has changed over the centuries, culminating with its central position in modern field theory and quantum gravity.

Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

The scholarship is excellent … useful, educational, and entertaining.

Matthew Stanley, New York University

Weatherall deftly explains all you wanted to know about nothingness—a.k.a. the quantum vacuum—but were afraid to ask in a very accessible, comprehensible and clear manner.

Priyamvada Natarajan, theoretical astrophysicist and author of Mapping the Heavens

In this brief, elegant book, James Weatherall shows just how rich nothing has become in the physics since the seventeenth century. Here you will find a concise inquiry into the meaning of absolute space, the surprising existence of gravity waves, and the fluctuating, even polarizable spacetime vacuum of modern particle physics. An enjoyable read, set into historical vignettes, with a fine, no-jargon stress on philosophical significance.

Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University

Physicists have done it again. They’ve taken a totally straightforward idea—nothingness—and blown it completely apart. Empty space is full. Absence has structure. Jim Weatherall elegantly describes how our human categories just can’t capture the richness of the natural world.

George Musser, author of Spooky Action at a Distance and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory

Publishers Weekly

“Readers get a dose of biography while following such figures as Einstein, Dirac, and Newton to see how top theories about the void have been discovered, developed, and debunked. Weatherall’s clear language and skillful organization adroitly combines history and physics to show readers just how much ‘nothing really matters.’”

Publishers Weekly

Economist

''An ode to the plenty of nothing."-Nature "Engaging and interesting."

Economist

Nature

“An ode to the plenty of nothing.”

Nature

The Wall Street Journal

“Against the plethora of popular writers who cast science as a series of incomprehensible wonders, Mr. Weatherall stands out by combining philosophical sophistication with an admirable ability to explain difficult concepts in plain, direct terms without oversimplifying. He presents cogent arguments, not just surprising results. Above all, he is aware of the importance of deep questions, which remain urgent and consequential even in the aftermath of powerful theories or explanations. . . . Mr. Weatherall offers his readers real food for thought, including excellent notes for those who want to go further into these questions.”

Peter Pesic

BBC Sky at Night

“This book is literally much ado about nothing . . . the author’s colorful prose brings the characters in the story to life. A very rewarding read.”

Paul Sutherland

Spectator

"[A] stylishly written and admirably concise book, at the end of which you will be inclined to agree, along with the author and Freddie Mercury both, that 'Nothing really matters."'

Steven Poole