Nothing will come of nothing, Lear said!


British monarch was right all along: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”

That’s what King Lear said to his daughter, the one who wasn’t willing to fawn about how much she loved him.

Centuries later, a different father-and-daughter team were locked in conversation. In a book review in today’s New York Times, Robin Marantz Henig describes what that father said:
HENIG (3/2/14): Father-daughter memoirs have an inherent appeal, especially when the father and daughter are on an almost preposterous quest. There’s such a quest in “Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn”: to uncover the nature of reality. It all began when Warren Gefter, a radiologist “prone to posing Zen-koan-like questions,” asked his 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, over dinner at a Chinese restaurant near their home just outside Philadelphia: “How would you define nothing?”
Did that question emerge from a fortune cookie? Inquiring minds want to ask!

A great deal came of Warren Gefter’s question about nothing, a question he asked of his daughter. According to Henig, “tracking down the meaning of nothing...became the defining project of [the Gefters’] lives.”

No, the Gefters didn’t write for Seinfeld, a TV show which was famously “about nothing.” Instead, they conducted some sort of ultimate search into some aspect of physics or something.

What exactly was the nature of the Gefters’ search? What did they end up discovering? Near the end of her review of Amanda Gefter’s new book, Henig suggests that nothing emerged from the search—at least, nothing we rubes can grasp.

As she states this judgment, Henig breaks a basic rule or reviewing. She says a well-placed book of popular science—a book intended for general readers—is basically incoherent:
HENIG: I wanted so much to like this book. A great premise, right? An intimate memoir about a father and daughter that can teach us a little something about physics along the way. But it turned out to be a hard book for me to like...

What we’re left with, finally, is being inside Gefter’s head as she falls deeper into the thickets of cosmology and quantum theory—and, later, as she hangs out with famous physicists. No one wants her to dumb down her explanation of these complex ideas, but with endlessly dense sentence upon sentence—sentences like “the probability distribution mapped out by the bright and dark stripes is not the distribution encoded in the wave function of a single photon”—a physics naïf will be totally befuddled. Science writers ought to clarify, not confuse.
“No one wants her to dumb down her explanations?” Sorry! We disagree with that!

If Gefter is writing a book for non-specialists, that is precisely what we want her to do. (Though we wouldn’t call if “dumbing down.” We’d call it “providing coherence.”)

Here's the problem:

If Gefter works to avoid incoherence, she might end up discovering that she isn’t discussing “ideas” at all, complex or otherwise. She might find that her work is incoherent all the way down.

Let’s return to the opening scene at that restaurant. This is Henig’s account of what happened when Warren Gefter posed his somewhat peculiar question: “How would you define nothing?”
HENIG (continuing directly from above): Warren Gefter had been thinking about this for a while, he told his daughter. He defines “nothing” as a state of infinite, unbounded homogeneity. “Think about it,” he said. “A ‘thing’ is defined by its boundaries. By what differentiates it from something else. That’s why when you draw something, it’s enough to draw its outline...The edges define the ‘thing.’ ” What thrilled him about this insight was that it simplified the search for how the universe began. It transformed the cosmologist’s eternal conundrum—how something could emerge from nothing—and made it potentially knowable, recast as a search for the boundaries themselves.

“I think we should figure it out,” he said. And his teenage daughter—sullen, rebellious, wallowing in existential dread—smiled for the first time “in what felt like years.” The project proved to be a gift from a wise, insightful father. It was Warren Gefter’s way of rescuing his child.
There came the sun! According to Henig, “Tracking down the meaning of nothing—and, by extension, secrets about the origin of the universe and whether observer-independent reality exists—became the defining project of their lives.”

Sorry! We’re not necessarily buying; in the end, neither does Henig. Engaging in a bit of time travel, let’s return to the opening move in this search.

What should Amanda Henig have said when her father posed his somewhat peculiar question?

Granted, she was only 15. But in our view, these would have been productive answers to the question he asked:
QUESTION: “How do you define nothing?”

POSSIBLE ANSWERS: “I don’t.” Or this:

“Why do you ask? What do you mean? I don’t get your drift.”
Some questions don’t make obvious sense on their face. On its face, Warren Gefter’s question is an example.

In fact, almost no one, except a dictionary publisher, ever “defines nothing” in any way at all. Nor is it clear why anyone would ever want to do so.

The word “nothing” is used in various ways by fluent speakers of English. Here are some published examples from Saturday’s New York Times:
Published uses of the word nothing:
Nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son's life.

''I have nothing against [the mayor],'' said Gilmar Mello, 47, who owns a small store selling motorcycle gear.

NT-1 was the world's first human embryonic stem-cell line created by parthenogenesis, a process that has nothing to do with cloning.

Enter Mr. McConaughey, whose career turnaround...has been nothing short of spectacular.
Speakers of English will understand those straightforward statements. In which instance is the meaning of the sentence clarified in any way by Gefter’s alleged “definition,” in which “nothing” is somewhat weirdly defined as “a state of infinite, unbounded homogeneity?”

But that’s not what Gefter meant,
you might say. If so, isn’t it up to Gefter to articulate what he does mean?

“How do you define nothing?” That is a rather strange question, a question of a type which never arises in normal discussion.

Wittgenstein said this about questions and statements of that type: It’s the sort of thing a person only says when doing philosophy.

He didn’t mean that as a compliment. He meant that questions and statements of that type will routinely end up not making sense. By which he meant this:

If you ask a few simple questions, you will find that the person posing the question or statement can’t explain what he meant by his question or statement. (At one point, Wittgenstein described this experience—the puzzling experience of discovering that you can’t explain what you meant by something you said, something you thought you believed.)

“How do you define nothing?” That’s a peculiar question, one which may lead us down an extremely murky path. According to Henig, that peculiar question led to a book with a succession of “endlessly dense sentences,” a book which will leave the intended reader hopelessly confused.

A lot of such books get published anyway, then sell a lot of copies. When they’re published by the people Henig describes as the “rock stars” of this industry, they tend to get praised for being easy to understand, even when they’re hopelessly incoherent.

Reviewers are often reluctant to say that such books are incoherent. In this case, Henig says this book is incoherent—but she claims there was a coherent road the author could have taken:
HENIG: As I struggled with the language, I found myself wondering whether this book could have been written differently. Maybe the subject matter is just too abstruse, or maybe I’m just too dumb? In fact, Gefter herself handed me the answer. She inserts an early book proposal she sent to that famous literary agent, with the working title “Hunting the Snark,” a homage to the Lewis Carroll poem about a search for a creature that keeps eluding discovery. In the proposal, she clarifies how cosmology and quantum mechanics have evolved as scientists come to grips with the fact that things they had taken to be real—quantum particles, space-time, gravity, dimension—turn out to be observer-dependent. All of a sudden, the underlying arguments and themes became clearer; when Amanda Gefter wants to make the complex understandable, she can.
We’re going to disagree.

As Henig notes, that original book proposal appears in Getler’s book. Recalling the way these books are normally reviewed, Henig swears the original book proposal makes things wonderfully clear.

In our view, it doesn’t do any such thing. Here’s how the proposal starts:
GEFTER (page 250): Like the characters in Carroll’s surrealist poem, physicists are on the trail of their own Snark. Their shadowy creature is ultimate reality, the objective world independent of observers. It is the world “out there,” as it exists in and of itself regardless of how we perceive it. This has proven far thornier than one might think. In the early twentieth century, Albert Einstein found that space and time were not fundamentally real but are observer-dependent. Meanwhile, the founders of quantum mechanics were coming to grips with the realization that observers play a far more profound role than anyone imagined. But what few people know is that in recent years, things have gotten a whole lot weirder. Today, cutting-edge physics is forcing us to completely rethink the nature of reality and our place in the cosmos. In studying the physics of black holes, physicists have found that particles are observer-dependent; in exploring the consequences of the holographic principle they’ve found that even four-dimensional spacetime—which had been left intact by Einstein’s theories—is also observer-dependent, introducing what Leonard Susskind has called “a new kind of relativity.”

These are conclusions that boggle the mind. The things that we have long believed to be the most fundamental features of reality have turned out to be nothing more than mirages...
It may be that Amanda Getler can explain a lot of modern physics in a coherent manner. More precisely, she may be able to explain what she means when she says that X, Y and Z are “observer-dependent.”

Gefter may be able to do that. We aren’t reassured by that proposal.

According to that proposal, Gefter doesn’t want to explain reality; she wants to explain ultimate reality. She doesn’t want to explain what’s real; she wants to explain what’s fundamentally real.

Fuzzy concepts don’t get clearer by injecting adjectives into the stew. Books by the rock stars of this industry often ring with promises which sound a bit like this. Their coherence quickly fades, like the morning dew, though reviewers are loath to admit it.

Gefter’s prose reminds us of a favorite saying of our college girl friend’s mother. Here it is:

“What is matter? Never mind! What is mind? No matter!”

It was a bit of a physics joke. (Our friend’s father was a professor turned college president.)

To help resolve the mystery here, we’ll offer one observation. People find it hard to explain how consciousness could have arisen in a universe which started out as mere matter.

We’ll only note this: it has proven to be hard to get from matter to mind. If we postulate a universe which started out as consciousness, our puzzle almost resolves itself.

It’s relatively easy to see how the idea of matter could have arisen from mind. Our silly observer-dependent perceptions may conjure the idea of matter even where, as Gefter suggests, it can’t exactly be shown to reallytruly exist inandofitself, in the ultimate reality about which sophomores and historical philosophers have long been known to muse.

Someone will perhaps be explaining this with a sign many centuries hence. In the meantime, don’t feel you have to try to answer every question someone poses. If someone asks a question which seems a bit peculiar, he may be taking you down a road where neither one of you will be able to explain what you mean.

Don't be afraid to reject the question, to ask your friend what he means and why the heck he asks.

For ourselves, our own mother’s favorite saying was this: “Who has more fun than people?”

Her question didn’t exactly make sense. She wasn’t expecting an answer.


  1. "Fuzzy concepts don’t get clearer by injecting adjectives into the stew."

    I would add "Statements aren't made false by adding verbs linking the spoken truth to implied falsehood."

  2. "Some ruminators muse. Some ruminants moo.
    Both produce bullshit." Hoary Arapaho Wive's Tail

  3. My mother's favorite saying was, "The first damned liar doesn't stand a chance around here."

    It continues to make quite a bit of sense.

  4. We never knew our mother so we never argued over which one us she liked best.

  5. Nothing just means no-thing, simply, the absence of stuff you can comprehend...So the fact you can't comprehend it just fulfills the definition. And, BTW, life was best described by H.L. Mencken as a disease of the cosmos.

  6. Everything is composed of information/mind.

    1. information/mind is possible.

    2. If you think reality is an illusion, try stepping off the roof of a building and see what happens.

  7. I don't understand what this means:

    "If we postulate a universe which started out as consciousness, our puzzle almost resolves itself. "

    I also don't understand Bob's issue with the general premise of the book. I do take his point that science writers should make things more understandable. But, otherwise, I'm on board with both the question of what "nothing" is and an attempt to define it.

  8. “Who has more fun than people?”


    1. What a Butchy thing to say about our Bob's own mom's favorite saying.

  9. I am so glad you wrote on this review, Bob. I thought you might after you referred to the review. Really fine criticism.

    1. Yes. A fine way to tell trolls where to go as well.

    2. "A fine way to tell trolls ... ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  10. I think it is child abuse to ask a teen such a question. What a huge number of hours she has wasted in order to gain her father's approval, what a waste of productive energy. Even this book might have been useful if it had explored her relationship with her father instead of empty questions of no use to anyone.

    In The Commitments, brother Rabbit refers to jazz as "musical wanking." I think this kind of book is lexical wanking.

    1. She should have learned to cook and sew.

    2. Hey, don't knock sewing. My mother tried to teach me how to use a sewing machine when I was in elementary school but my schoolwork was so much easier, I abandoned the sewing.

      Now I wish I knew how....

    3. Sewing is an activity females have historically engaged in more than males, so sewing should always be referenced derisively by progressives based on their belief that females, and by extension the activities they engage in at higher rates, are inferior.

  11. My mother's favorite saying was "Better you should raise pigs."

  12. A beautiful resolution to a terrific mystery.

  13. Humbug?

  14. My mother's favorite question was: "Why do you let that garbage enter your mind?"

    (As my father and I sat and watched TV.)

  15. Somewhat off topic, but I will recommend Cecil Adams' amusing poem explaining the paradox of Schroedinger's Cat.

    1. "Somewhat off topic ...." What else is new?

  16. TDH refuses to learn any physics but insists on reviewing writing about science. I wish he'd do the former or give up the latter. Physicists know there's "something" when they can measure it reliably. By "reliably" they mean that people who run the same tests in the same conditions get the same results. Now, just because we can ask a question doesn't make it sensible. Our language is too flexible. So it's possible that investigating "nothing," the complete absence of measurable things is simply a fool's errand. It's also possible that the answer requires a level of mathematics not accessible to readers of popularizations. Or maybe the author can't write a clear sentence on any topic.

    To an ignoramus, there's no distinguishing among the possibilities. And appealing to the vernacular uses of the word "nothing" can't help.

    Nothing is worse than ignorance.

    1. "TDH refuses to learn any physics but insists on reviewing writing about science."

      Hey, what's the problem? He doesn't seem to know anything about traffic engineering either, yet he seems to be very impressed by a couple of hacks scribbling in crayon and calling it a study.

    2. Well, thank heavens you said he "seems" to be impressed.
      "Seems" is verbal vaccination against prevarication. That allows you to avoid naming the "hacks scribbling in crayon." Good work. You have explored a possibility.

    3. mm, TDH knows as much about traffic engineering as Wildsteing and Bridge T Kelly. Which is to say that whatever Wildstein thought he was doing, it might well be (in TDH's words) a hoax or a ruse.

      Why still pretend that TDH is waiting for the PA to release a traffic study approved by the Institute of Transportation Engineers?

    4. ".. a traffic study approved by the Institute of Transportation Engineers?"

      Soitenly not. He's waiting for a traffic study approved by the Three Stooges. And godammit, that sneaky shifty Rachel Maddow better report it.

    5. He doesn't have to wait. The stooges were there from the beginning. At least three of them.

  17. … the probability distribution mapped out by the bright and dark stripes is not the distribution encoded in the wave function of a single photon[.]

    This is a reference to the important so-called "double slit" experiment, which requires an adjustable light source, a target to illuminate, and an interposed barrier. Let's say that the target is a luminescent screen that can record the impact of photons from the source so that spots on the screen that receive the most hits are the brightest. With a rectangular slit cut in the barrier, the screen will record a bright area roughly the size and shape of the opening. This seems unsurprising. Cutting a second identical opening near the first does not result in two bright areas, but rather in bands of lighter and darker areas called an "interference pattern." An analogous thing happens when a shore-bound ocean wave hits a jetty with two openings. Two waves emerge from the jetty, one from each opening, and they "interfere" with each other in the sense that when two crests in the water meet, the water is very high; when two troughs meet, the water is very low; and when a crest meets a trough, they cancel out and the water level is unchanged. Light acts in such a wavelike manner going through the two slits. Where the two crests reenforce each other, the screen is very bright; where a crest and trough cancel each other, the screen is dark. Think of the brightness representing the probability of a photon impact. We have a very good theory to explain this called QED or quantum electrodynamics.

    When the intensity of the light source is dialed down so that it sputters photons one at at time instead of in an immense cascade, the individual photons either pass through a slit and hit the screen to light it up or they don't and fail to affect the screen. If a photon hits, it's a 100% sure bet that the screen lights up; if not, it's 0%. But if you let the low-intensity light experiment run for long enough, the same interference pattern of light and dark lines emerges from the individual hits.

    But what's interfering? Each photon with those that went before? With those that are yet to emerge from the source? With itself?

    I haven't read Gefter's book, and the quotes given in the review make it seem that her prose is often opaque as the barrier without slits. Maybe she can't write a lucid sentence. Or maybe "she isn't discussing 'ideas' at all," as TDH suggests. An ignorant reviewer can't tell, but TDH tells us anyway.

    1. And that's not even the weirdest thing about the double-slit experiment.

      For if you placed a detector outside of one of the slits to observe if the photon passes through that slit or the other slit, it is shown that the photon does indeed pass through one slit or the other and the pattern on the screen changes from the interference pattern to intense bright stripes corresponding to the two strips. Take away the "observer" detecting which slit the photon passes through and the interference pattern returns.

    2. mm, Thanks, an excellent point, and one I was remiss in not mentioning. There are several examples of this kind of quantum "weirdness" that are not restricted to the nano-world. Which is the reality? The interference pattern or the "observer-mediated" slit-sized bright strips? Both together, perhaps. Or neither. Or, if you're an adherent of the Feynman school of "Shut up and compute," who cares?

      You can read confusing paragraphs about the semiotics of "culturally-defined reality" and confusing paragraphs about quantum-mechanical "observer-defined reality." One of them is guaranteed bullshit, but if you don't know a little physics, like our favorite blogger, you can't tell them apart.

    3. The neat thing about the double slit experiment is that anyone can do it at home for very little cost. I can't criticize Bob too much. Modern physics has gotten to the point where I simply can't comprehend it anymore. Dark matter. Dark energy. Multiple dimensions. String theory. The God particle. I think we're at a point where we need another Einstein to make a quantum leap. Feynman is my hero. I don't think he meant "who cares". I'm sure he cared. He just recognized and accepted that we don't know the "why".

  18. a book intended for general readers—is basically incoherent

    Ha! Maybe TDH knows more physics than I give him credit for.

    1. Perhaps he had one of those Wittgenstein moments—"the puzzling experience of discovering that you can’t explain what you meant by something you said, something you thought you believed."

      My guess is it is not limited to science.

  19. It is very unclear from this post whether Somerby read the book or merely the review.