We would be nothing if not for a whole lot of nothing
Summer is here and Ridgway is suddenly full of noise and activity. Motorcycles and RVs fill the roads. Bicycle tours, fireworks, music festivals, weddings and family visits fill the weekends. People are rushing around making money, planting gardens and throwing BBQs. So I guess it must be time for another in my series of unrelated articles — this month I will be writing about nothing.
Now you might think that there is not much one can write about nothing. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing is all around us and takes a very big role in our world and in our brains. It might even be fair to say that we wouldn’t be what we are without nothing.
For instance; ask any physicists and they will tell you that most of all matter, including your car, your golf balls and your beer, is mostly empty space — nothing in fact. More than 99.99999999999 percent of the volume of the atoms which make up everyday objects are empty space and there is even more space between the atoms. The atomic spacing of atoms ranges from a few nanometers to meters. So if you were to take something very large like a full sized Olympic swimming pool and remove all of the space between the molecules you would wind up with something about the size of a human hair and nowhere to swim. Fortunately there is space between the molecules and it is actually a very busy place; and that space is the place where interactions between the molecules occur. Electromagnetism, hydrostatic bonds, attraction and repulsion all happen in the empty spaces between molecules. Even the vacuum of deep space is full of fields and virtual particles. Even as I write this article “dry glue adhesives” based on Van Der Waal’s forces are being developed to allow people to climb sheer surfaces like geckos do using hardly anything at all.
Often when we think of nothing we often think of the number zero, but zero is not nothing — it’s something. Though hard to imagine that “zero” had to be invented or discovered, the earliest known use of a circle shaped symbol was only as recent as 130 A.D. At that time Ptolemy used a circle with a bar over it to symbolize nothing, but overall the Greeks were a bit skeptical that nothing could be something. They were even unsure that they should call zero a number at all. In fact Zeno’s paradoxes rely on the uncertain status of zero. In India, as early as 924 A.D., a circle symbol called ṣifr or "empty" was used as a placeholder in row calculations when there was no number to put in the place. The Chinese had a “vacant position” for centuries before India but did not have a specific symbol for zero in their counting rod system.
Nothing also figures prominently in mysticism. The Hindi word “mauna” is often translated as a vow of silence but the practice of Mauna is not merely the absence of speech. Instead Mauna in best thought of as an overall decrease in the “noise” of one’s life. In Mauna, limiting extraneous actions helps to focus one’s mind inward and to develop peace, strength and happiness. Listening to silence is understood to make one thoughtful, a better listener and help one connect better with other people. And it turns out that there is scientific evidence this might be the case.
Brain scan studies at the University of South Carolina medical school have shown that being quiet, meditating or listening to nothing (just “zoning out”) allows our brains to go into what is sometimes called default neural mode. Default mode is thought to be responsible for stronger connectivity between sections of the brain. Creative people and people with higher IQs have a strong default mode and therefore the ability to coordinate ideas whereas people with autism have been shown to have a weaker connectivity in this way.
Finally, scientists know that even a small portion of the day in a quiet space can give your ears a chance to “reboot” and promotes healthy hearing, whereas constant loud noises degrade hearing. We know that children learn better when there is less ambient noise to distract them. Some of the best musicians leave spaces between the notes they play which allow our imaginations to fill in the gaps. So during the busiest months of the year it might be good to take time off and go up into the mountains. Listen to how the trail is silent but for the bird song and the sounds of the river and trees. Take a moment to sit quietly with the radio and television off. Allow the nothing in. You might be happy you did.
Dr. Joe Alaimo is the owner of Ouray Vet and partner of Trail Town Still. The savior of small animals, thirsty people everywhere and a fairly dangerous man with a garlic press.