By Hamish Johnston
The BBC’s resident polymath Melvyn Bragg was talking physics again. This morning he was exploring the physics of nothing with Frank Close, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Ruth Gregory. Bell Burnell, by the way, is president of the Institute of Physics.
The programme is called the Vacuum of Space and you can listen to it here.
The team began with a philosophical discussion of a vacuum — apparently it was heresy in the Middle Ages to suggest that nothing could exist — and moved swiftly on to Torricelli’s studies involving atmospheric pressure.
The three physicists then discussed aether, the Michelson-Morley experiment and concluded that “Einstein got rid of Reading Station”.
Then it was time to delve into the weird world of quantum mechanics and the virtual particles that appear to bubble out of nothing. The physicists were keen on using banking analogies to explain all this — I suppose we are all familiar with virtual money these days — but Melvyn banned any mention of banks.
I had to switch off early as I got to work, but the team seemed to be coming round to the conclusion that in the quantum world “the uncertainty principle abhors a vacuum” — a new twist on a very old concept.