Questions about nothing



I have been a big fan of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson for quite some time. In case you don't know who he is, shame on you for not knowing. Ok, just kidding. He is an astrophysicist and a brilliant speaker. He's so good, that if he were reading the ingredients of a cereal box, you would be awestruck. Really - he's that good. I saw an advertisement on Space.com for a series of DVD's starring Dr. Tyson. I then saw a podcast which he created called StarTalk. I have been listening to these one after another. These are not just about space and science, but he interviews the famous, and not so famous. The conversations he has with his guests are absolutely fascinating. You get to know the person, not the celebrity. I won't try to describe this phenomenon. Just listen to these podcasts and you'll know what I mean.

It is no surprise then, to know that I have been spending a considerable amount of my time thinking about physics, from the very large to the very small. I have helped my daughter with chemistry, to explain the structure of the atom. I have helped my son to learn about the planets (all eight of them thank you once again Dr. Tyson). We recently paid a visit to an open house at nearby Argonne. I was amazed by all the science going on there. I got to talk to the people doing this science, all my kids got to experience this, and I also got some great pictures of particle accelerators.

I got to wondering about atoms. There was a time when people thought that the earth was flat. There was a time when people thought that the earth was the center of the universe. There was a time when people thought that all things were made up of water, earth, wind and fire. Now while those last three turned out to be an awesome force of music, it nonetheless happens that there is more to matter than those components.

Air is all around us. We can't see it, but we know that it is there. Upon further examination, we know that the air is made up of smaller things - oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements. Inside those elements are smaller things yet - protons, neutrons, electrons. Smaller yet are quarks, bosons, gluons, and others. So it got me to thinking, what exists between the nucleus and the electrons? It can't be air, because air is made up of atoms. So what is it? I think back on all my science and physics classes, and I don't recall that this was ever discussed. I have read various explanations, but so far, I haven't heard anything concrete. Is it known? Is it unknown? Is it effectively a net neutral state as the result of quantum collisions? Dr. Tyson, what would you say? I would sure like to know.

October 30, 2012. After further reading and investigation, I think I have found the answer - it's nothing, really. Really - it's nothing. No particles, no energy. Nothing. A complete void. Fascinating. Now I think I'll go read more about quantum physics.

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