Thinking about nothing in particular

I’ve always been interested in the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ I remember walking to school trying to imagine nothing: no planets, stars, or galaxies. (I’d seen these in an astronomy book and was inconsolable when the same book told me that the sun would one day engulf Earth). All I could think of was blackness, but I realised there would be no colour black so I imagined total blankness in white. Then I realised there would be no white either. Totally flummoxed, I gave up.

Perhaps the hardest thing to realise is there would be no observer. Every now and then, that question returns. I now think the question itself is part of the problem. We’re clearly confused about what ‘nothing’ is. We can’t even imagine it, let alone experience it, or measure it. One way of rethinking ‘nothing’ would be to see it as an extreme position on a spectrum, and give up the dualistic idea of something/nothing. Everything is marked by constant change: what we think of as void is teeming with possibility. Perhaps nothingness is nothing more than absolute potential.

 

 

Anon. – The greatest of all poets

No doubt this January 1st we’ll all spring out of bed refreshed and ready to seize the promise of a pristine new year. As our clear, crisp minds embark on new creative pursuits, here’s a question to help understand what kind of projects we’re working on and who they’re really for.

Would I be willing to do this anonymously?

In other words: is this for personal gratification or personal enjoyment? Is it something I’m willing to stand behind? Is it worthwhile for others, and/or in its own right? The question is intended to help us clarify our motivations for working on a task.

Anonymity does appeal, however. I remember reading poetry anthologies in school and thinking the best poems were by Anon. Who was this mysterious Anon who wrote all of the bold, simple poems that spoke with such undeniable clarity that they sounded fresh, funny and often alarming centuries later? Now I find myself wondering who these poets were and why their names don’t appear in the anthologies. Perhaps a famous master decided that a straightforward, comic piece didn’t fit her oeuvre. Were they risking controversy? Did they only have one poem to write or thousands? Were they always anonymous or was their name lost over shifting centuries? Conversely, how many poets now exist in name only, a bit like Ozymandias?

This touches on the topic of intrinsic motivation. Some projects are passions and important for our fulfillment and sense of wellbeing. These are some of the most meaningful activities we can do. If I write a story because I enjoy the challenge of expressing myself, I don’t need the approval of others to do so. In fact, in some ways writing becomes more enjoyable if no external recognition is asked for or received. It becomes deeply personal – and its worth won’t be coloured by the opinions of others.

Other projects are valuable because they do have meaning for other people. They could be social, like playing guitar with friends; or inspiring, like painting a scene that stirs emotions. Perhaps a project will benefit a community or directly alleviate someone’s suffering. We might consider still other works, especially those at the pinnacle of a craft, worthwhile purely as aesthetic or innovative achievements – or perhaps because such actions or behaviours are inherently worthwhile. Solving a hard mathematical problem or learning to dance might be good examples (though neither are strengths of mine).

On the other hand, we’re likely to encounter disappointment when we expect our work or art to bring us pleasure because of how it reflects on us. Then we derive little enjoyment from our effort unless it gains us recognition: something we ultimately have little control over.

It’s a good idea to know what kind of satisfaction we’re looking for. Happy New Year!

How big is the observable universe?

In an attempt to understand my place in the cosmos, I wanted to create a pithy analogy that would sum up the vastness of everything in a concise image. Preliminary research went well. I learned that the observable universe has a volume of 4 x 1080 m3, Earth has a volume of 1.083 x 1021 m3, the Atlantic Ocean is 3.104 x 1017 m3 and, going the other way, a grain of sand is 1 x 10-13 m3*.

These numbers didn’t feel intuituve to me. I wanted to find out how equivalent Earth versus the universe is compared to a grain of sand, or a molecule, versus the sea. That might be sufficient if I had a real notion of how large Earth is… which I probably don’t. I bungled the maths and ended up with a variety of numbers that were all too big to understand. Giving up for now, I decided to read a translation of Nagarjuna’s ‘Examination of Conditions’ and failed to understand any of that either. I suppose I was looking to be humbled in a way that made me feel clever.

*All according to Wolfram Alpha.