Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing

Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing, James Owen Weatherall, Yale University Press, $26 – PB

This book is literally much ado about nothing. Unlike most works found in an astronomer’s library, it does not focus on the stars, planets, gas and dust that fill space, but rather space itself and the nature of that apparent emptiness.

The physical laws that govern the Universe were famously set out by celebrated English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century. But long before him, ancient philosophers had pondered what space between objects really was and how it influenced those things.

Newton’s laws of motion still underpin physics today and are a vital basis of astronomical teaching. But there was seen to be much more to the picture, thanks to advances by other great thinkers, in particular Albert Einstein in the early 20th century with his celebrated theory of general relativity which refined our ideas about space and time.

Quantum field studies have followed which show that a void is really not so empty at all but has its own complex structure.

This is not an easy book. Well, it is simple enough to read, being thankfully devoid (sorry) of mathematical formulae and equations, but some challenging concepts are presented that require some concentrated thought to follow. That is the nature of the subject.

A third of the book is taken up with notes and references. However, the author’s colourful prose brings characters in the story to life, and ultimately it is a very rewarding read about a subject which one might have imagined amounted to very little!

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