The Technium

A Whole Lot of Nothing

[Translations: Japanese]


I live about 2 km from the ocean. I rode down on my bike today and just hung out on the shore to watch the waves crashing over each other. This is what it looked like on our beach in Pacifica. As I sat on some rocks watching the waves roll in and the wind whipping the foam at the top, and the sun shinning through the crest of the wave, I was overcome with the certainty that everything I was seeing was immaterial. It was real, but it was not solid. Despite the hard rocks I was sitting on, despite the gritty sand on my feet, despite the pounding water in the surf, despite the force of wind on my cheeks, despite my knowledge of how fatal the ocean can be to life, despite all these clear and unmistakeable signals, it was (and still is) clearer yet, that at their essences, all these things are really made of something intangible, without weight, something close to what we think of as information.

Water is made of oxygen and hydrogen. What is a oxygen atom made of? Not oxygen, but of smaller particles, like protons and electrons. And what are they made of? Mostly space. In a lecture I just watched, Brian Cox gave a figure for how empty an atom is. It is 99.9999999999999% space. And what is that remaining 0.000000000000001% non-space made of? Nothing that we would call hard, or material. It is some wavicle, some quantum superposition, some intangible force. Maybe it is simply information. We actually don’t know what matter is at the bottom, but we do know it is fungible into energy and information.

So in a very real sense, the drops of water splashed up by waves thundering on the beach before me, and the sand churned up from the beach, are just patterns of the immaterial. Water and sand are real patterns just as the waves are real patterns; but they are patterns of a kind of nothingness.

I know the monks on the tops of mountains have been saying the real world is immaterial for eons, but the difference is that now we say can it precisely, and in such a scientific way that we can predict what else we should see if this view is correct. So far we can’t use ordinary words to describe what this fundamental intangible is. Wavicles don’t mean anything. Neither does the concept of a quantum particle being in two places at once. All we have is the language of mathematics, which few can speak. And what the maths say is that the tons of water rolling in under the light of a sun 93 millions miles away and pounding the sand in front of me is all really mostly nothing, and the little that is not nothing, is really just another kind of nothing.

This is hard to see at sunset on the beach along the edge of the Pacific Ocean. But this afternoon I could see it.


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