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Frank Close - getting closer to nothing -

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[excerpt from Angels and Demons]

Noisy lot. Dan Brown's latest frolic in the movies. The baddies pinch some antimatter from the
Large Hadron Collider and try to nuke the Vatican with it, which seems rather peevish. Frank Close
has taken an interest in Angels and Demons, as we'll hear, and in the limits of knowledge. But he's
also just written a book about nothing, which is an achievement, and it's not just blank pages.

Frank Close: Aristotle said there was no such thing as nothing. He is the reason why this phrase
'nature abhors a vacuum' came to be. We use it all the time but people probably don't know quite
why nature does abhor a vacuum. Of course it doesn't abhor a vacuum, it was just that that's what
people thought, because whenever you try to make one nature seemed to stop you. A simple thing like
trying to suck the air out of a straw and the result is that the straw collapses. Of course we know
the reason why now, it's because of air pressure that is like ten tonnes of air pressure on your
body all the time, and if you try to suck the air out, everything collapses.

I actually as a kid used to wonder what would happen if you took all the stars away and the Moon
and the Earth and everything away, including you and me and everybody, so that there would be
nobody at all. And then I started wondering what was left. This nature of nothing with nobody to
know that there was nothing I sort of found quite eerie, and I thought either I was on the edge of
true enlightenment or madness, I was never quite sure which, so I took up theoretical physics.

Robyn Williams: That's a very good answer. I was talking to another theoretical physicist the other
day about how much 6.5 billion people would amount to if you squashed them down to
other words, took out all the nothingness, the space, and 6.5 billion people would amount to a
sugar cube in size. That's an awful lot of nothing, isn't it?

Frank Close: Yes, I think it would even be smaller than that because a neutron star is what happens
when you take all of the space of the atoms away and just leave the nucleus behind, the neutrons
behind. The atoms that we're made of are pretty well empty space. That's me rapping my empty head,
and yet it's solid. That's one of the great mysteries; how can it be that stuff that is so empty
appears completely solid. And the answer is it's empty as far as stuff is concerned, as far as
particles are concerned, but there are fields of force in there.

The whole universe is full of gravity. You see these beautiful pictures of spiral galaxies and you
can feel the stars whirling around the centre like a huge catherine wheel, and yet the stars on the
left of the picture are hundreds of thousands of light years away from those on the right, and
somehow they know about each other because gravity fills the space between them. And you say, well,
what's gravity? We know it works, we know Newton's laws and we can work out the force of gravity
between things, we can make space craft arrive on cue in the right place, but what actually is this
gravity that fills all of the space? I don't know.

Robyn Williams: Before I ask you the biggest, most difficult question...

Frank Close: Already?

Robyn Williams: is it that you can have sound going through air, which is something, and
yet light waves and electromagnetic waves going through a vacuum, going through nothing, with no
problem at all?

Frank Close: That was the question that really hung them up in the 19th century, that the moment
that Maxwell had said that electromagnetic radiation are waves, the question was; waves in what?
The idea that sound waves is the air molecules bumping into each other, that's how molecules bump
away and they eventually bump into the ones in the microphone which then sends the signal through
to the receiver into your room which bumps a few more air molecules which eventually hit your ear.
So there's something that is carrying the message, the wave. Electromagnetic waves, waves in what?

And they invented the idea of the ether, and this was a very bizarre substance that on the one hand
must have been incredibly tough to be able to transmit waves at 300,000 kilometres each second and
yet at the same time be so transparent that the Earth and planets could go through it as if it
wasn't there. And of course it was Einstein that eventually made the great leap in saying it isn't
there, there isn't any such stuff. There is truly nothing, and electromagnetic waves are
oscillating away in nothing.

Robyn Williams: There was a suggestion of ether making a comeback the other day, wasn't there?

Frank Close: In a profound way the ether has never really gone away. Today the idea of what we call
the Higgs Boson, the Higgs field, one way of thinking of that is that space is completely full of a
strange ether but it's an unusual ether, it's what's called a relativistic ether, in a very
profound sense designed such that you cannot possibly know that it is there except by the way that
it provides a resistance to things, an inertia which we interpret as mass. That is the theory
anyway. Whether it's true or not, we don't yet know. Hopefully in the next two to three years at
CERN we will know the answer to this, but at the moment that is the frontier.

Robyn Williams: Now for the most meaningful question. Are you ready?

Frank Close: Yes.

Robyn Williams: I once asked a mate of yours called Alan Guth this question. If you've got an awful
lot of nothing and you want to make a universe, I said to him, 'Where does it come from?' Many
people have asked this question before. And his answer was; a quantum fluctuation. Do you agree?

Frank Close: It is actually an interesting point that in principle Alan's answer could be correct,
that apparently empty space, space where all of the air and stuff has been taken out of, is still
full of virtual particles and anti-particles bubbling away, this sort of quantum froth that is
there all the while. We're not aware of it in normal experience but you can do experiments which
show that it is there, if you like, behind the scenes. So the vacuum is actually full of stuff,
it's like a medium, and just like a medium can take on different forms, like liquid water or frozen
snowflakes, so the vacuum can.

And the current ideas in science are that the very early universe, when it was very, very hot, the
nature of the vacuum was different than it is now, that it suddenly froze, that we, the structures,
the matter, solid form, particles and forces are the frozen form of nature today. The original
universe was in this very hot phase which we are now trying to see if this is really true at CERN.

Could it have erupted as a quantum fluctuation out of nothing? Bizarrely, maybe. You see, the idea
of the quantum is that you cannot simultaneously know where something is and how fast it is moving,
there are complementary things. You can borrow energy for a very brief moment. If you borrowed no
energy you could borrow it forever, and the remarkable thing in the universe is there's a lot of
positive energy trapped in stuff like you and me, but there's gravity around everywhere, and it
turns out that gravity is like negative energy. You're trapped in a gravitational well. So you and
me and everything in a universe full of gravity, the sum of all the energy in the universe could
add up to nothing, in which case, according to quantum, you could borrow it forever or at least 14
billion years.

So the universe could have erupted as a quantum fluctuation out of nothing. Where this leaves me
though is the great conundrum, so the night before the Big Bang happened, who or what, where was
encoded the quantum that says a universe can fluctuate out of it? And somehow I feel I've come full
circle. Yes, we know things that the ancient Greeks never did and we've passed a lot of interesting
things along the way, but I am still as far from the point where the rainbow touches ground as I
think they were 3,000 years ago.

Robyn Williams: Well, a much more straightforward and clear question, that of antimatter. I once
remember you attending a conference and I think the main star of the press conference hadn't turned
up, and one of the journalists said, 'Frank, go do a presentation for us on something you'll think
of in the next 14 seconds,' and you talked about the value of a certain substance for space
travellers in a space ship where there is no other source of fuel. And you said what you've got is
a constant source of urine because the crew will pee, and therefore if you had anti-urine then the
spaceship could be propelled. Was that your inspiration for antimatter?

Frank Close: That was indeed what I regret having said once in the past, and in principle it is
true. In fact I should have copyrighted it and now go to Dan Brown's lawyers and say, 'Just a
minute, I want my take on this.' Yes, and what I've done this year is written a book Antimatter
which is trying to separate the fact from the fiction. People at the moment have got quite enthused
because of Angels and Demons, it's a great fictional story, and with a bit of luck it might inspire
a lot of kids to take up science and learn the reality and the excitement of the reality of
antimatter, because what I do in my book Antimatter is show the wonderful things we've done.

Medics are using antimatter to save lives, PET scanners, positron emission tomography is used all
the time to save lives. In particle physics we use antimatter, property of annihilating matter and
antimatter in a flash of energy to recreate that flash of energy that we call the Big Bang. In the
laboratory we can make mini versions of just after the Big Bang and see how the basic seeds of
stuff emerged. So antimatter in science is incredibly exciting. And I end with the punch line,
'With so much excitement in fact, who needs fiction?'

Robyn Williams: Did Dan Brown get it half right or nearly right or what?

Frank Close: He got it half right in that it said that one gram of antimatter would be equivalent,
when you annihilated it, to the strength of the Hiroshima atom bomb. In fact he was half right
because you only need half as much, I regret to say, because the other half is given to you in the
form of matter that you annihilate against. Thankfully (or regretfully, I'm not sure which the
right word is) there are too many ways to make bombs far more easy than making antimatter, and that
is, I'm afraid, the way of the world.

The other bad news I think is...well, that's good news that you will not make an antimatter bomb,
the bad news is that his other question 'Could it be used to solve the world's energy problems?'
that is completely impossible because there isn't any antimatter out there, you have to make it,
atom or anti-atom by anti-atom. And the energy it costs you to make it is the same as you could get
back if later on you used it, and that is called the first law of thermodynamics or energy

The second law of thermodynamics is you can't even break even, that you waste a lot of energy, like
heat and things, friction, just disappears, it's useless. So you would actually use thousands of
times as much energy making your antimatter as you would ever be able to get back by using it. So a
source of the solution to the world's energy problems antimatter will never be, that's the bad
news. The good news is you will never make a bomb with it either.

Robyn Williams: My final question is if it's not out there, antimatter, how come it is likely to
happen anyway? Why should it be? Why isn't there just matter on its own?

Frank Close: That is, in my mind, the big question that we really are trying to find the answer to,
that everything in our experiments has shown how matter and antimatter emerge symmetrically in
perfect balance out of energy, and so presumably that is what happened after the Big Bang, and they
annihilate each other when they come in contact again. And yet today it seems the universe, as far
as we can observe it at large, is made of matter to the exclusion of antimatter. If there is
antimatter out there in bulk it is hiding itself away where we haven't managed to find it yet. So
what is the cause of this great asymmetry, we don't know. Why it is therefore there is something
rather than nothing is indeed the big question of the moment. Where did all that antimatter go and
why didn't it take us with it?

Robyn Williams: Frank Close, professor of physics at Oxford, has a book called Nothing: A Very
Short Introduction.


Frank Close

Professor of Physics Exeter College University of Oxford


Title: Antimatter

Author: Frank Close

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Title: Nothing: A Very Short Introduction

Author: Frank Close


Robyn Williams


David Fisher

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