Nothing: From Absolute Zero to Cosmic Oblivion, Edited by Jeremy Webb - Paperbacks review


What goes on in our brains when we’re not thinking? Why do some animals lounge around all day doing nothing? Is outer space completely empty? Why did it take so long for the number zero to be accepted? These are just some of the questions discussed in this intriguing collection of essays on “nothingness” by science writers including Ian Stewart, Marcus Chown, Nigel Henbest, Michael Brooks, Paul Davies and David Fisher.

The book is the latest from Profile in association with New Scientist, and topics include the Big Bang (and whether something can really come from nothing); transistors (in which “holes” in a semiconductor take on a life of their own); the power of placebos (and their evil twins, “nocebos”); and “interplanetary superhighways” (enabling super-efficient space travel along gravitational contours).

As the stories show, there’s really no such thing as nothing. Animals that appear to spend their whole life doing nothing are, in fact, doing nothing of the kind. Burmese pythons, for example, often go for months between meals – but that time is spent digesting the previous (often huge) meal. In his introduction, Webb explains why he chose not to shoehorn the stories into chapters themed along conventional lines – cosmology, mathematics, psychology etc – and instead to create chapters headed, for example, “beginnings”, “mysteries” and “surprises”.

If you want to read all the essays on a particular theme, a signpost at the end of each essay points you to the next one in the chain. I found many so engrossing that I immediately wanted to continue the thread. So, having to skip several chapters to find the next essay on the same theme was a distraction. I’d have preferred all the essays on, say, the history of the number zero (you’d be surprised how fascinating this subject is in the hands of a gifted mathematical communicator such as Ian Stewart) to be grouped together. That way, you could dip into the book at random, because the essays on a specific theme can be read in any order – it’s not a text book, more of a story book. I also felt that a few more illustrations would have been helpful.

Still, these are minor quibbles. If only I’d had this book in my school days, when smart-arse prefects would like to punish young miscreants by telling them to  write 300 words about the inside of a pingpong ball. How surprised they would have been by my answer.