Nature abhors a vacuum, so said Aristotle. But it was Pascal who took mercury to the top of a church tower, to reveal that we sit at the bottom of a column of air with nothing above but the expanse of infinite space. We live on a speck of dust in a vast unimaginable vacuum. But was Aristotle wrong? The classic experiment of a bell in a jar without air shows that, although you cannot hear anything, you can still see the bell ring, meaning that the vacuum is not really empty. Surely light must travel through something? Measuring this was to prove difficult. It was Michelson and Morley who looked closely at the luminescent ether and accurately measured the speed of light. In 1887 they finally build a machine that could accurately measure two beams of light to see the effects of the ether. They found light travelled at a constant speed. They thought their experiment had failed but it was simply that the ether did not exist.
Nothingness is, in reality, a fluxing mass of virtual particles. The universe is just the quantum world but on a super massive scale. Quantum physics provides us with the means to understand how the tiny quantum fluctuations of the vacuum has, out of seemingly nothing, produced the variety which turned the ‘Big Bang’ into galaxies and the mysterious anti-matter. We are the debris of an unimaginable explosion at the beginning of time. Jim Al-Khalili says; ‘We have uncovered the strange truth about reality itself. There is a strange connection between the nothingness from which we originated and the infinite in which we are engulfed.’ It appears nature does abhor a vacuum, that there is never nothing, just the awe-inspiring, mysterious fizz of matter and anti-matter appearing and disappearing for eternity.
It was Einstein who, in 1909, finally worked out that light did not need an ether through which to travel. In the following decades physicists discovered the world of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle showed us that the world of the very small is not certain. According to his uncertainty principle, theoretically, in a very tiny amount of time you could see matter appear and disappear from nothing. Bizarrely, the vacuum is actually alive! By 1928 the problem in physics was the incompatibility of Einstein's special theory of relativity and Planck’s discovery of the quantum, the rules of the very, very small. The problem was how to describe the electron, which was both fast and small. Dirac’s unification of both theories in 1928 allowed the visualisation of the electron. What Dirac proposed was called anti-matter. If matter and anti-matter met, he theorised, they would destroy each other. Electrons and anti-electrons appear as pairs and almost instantly disappear. This area of physics became known as quantum field theory.