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Karl W. Giberson

Much Ado About Nada

The television sitcom Seinfeld was a cultural phenomenon—one of the most wildly successful shows in the history of television. Part of Seinfeld's peculiar charm—its "schtick"—was that it was a show about nothing, and it managed to turn this into a marketing device. Of course Seinfeld wasn't really about nothing, it simply lacked the standard plot framework possessed by sibling shows and often drew its comedic strength from trivia. But, by traditional yardsticks, something normally present was missing—thus the claim to be about nothing.

The Seinfeldian sense of nothing is the common usage. A show without a standard plot is about "nothing." Likewise, someone without a plan is doing "nothing" on Friday night. A writer between projects is working on "nothing." A bored child has "nothing" to do. A detective who comes up dry has "nothing." The SETI program has found "nothing." A tale told by an idiot signifies "nothing."

The absence of an anticipated element is often described as "nothing." This very familiar usage is rarely confusing to ordinary people, but it is certainly imprecise, colloquial, and unsatisfactory to philosophers.

Philosophers, it turns out, have always been fascinated by nothing. The classical Greeks were intrigued by nothing and invented a variety of ingenious arguments to prove that nothing could not exist. Their most enduring legacy was Aristotle's pithy aphorism, horror vacui—"Nature abhors a vacuum." Theologians have also put their spin on nothing. Determined to lay waste to the notion that God created the world out of some uncooperative material, they developed the now familiar doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. God created out of nothing.

Physicists are also intrigued by nothing. Their nothing is empty space, and they have long observed, experimented, and theorized about whether space can be truly empty. The historical intuition was negative, consistent with the Aristotelian tradition out of which modern science arose. Space ...

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