lynn margulis

Back in the 1950s, when Lynn Margulis was a student studying cell biology, there were two scientific theories which were held up for ridicule, to show how far fetched ideas could get if not reigned in by observation, evidence and reason. One was the theory of continental drift – that the earth’s continents somehow floated across the surface of the planet and rearranged themselves over time. The other was the theory of endosymbiosis. The idea that the cells that make up complex things like animals and plants, you and me, somehow originated from a fusion, a symbiosis, of simpler, bacterial cells.

The first theory, continental drift, moved quite swiftly, after that time, from the realm of ridicule to complete mainstream acceptance. Nowadays, it is something that is well known to the general public and I even teach it to primary school kids in grade 3. And they are really interested in it, they love it and they get it. It’s not ridiculous, it’s just the way things are – the land moves, we’re living on this gigantic, slow moving raft. Of course, why not.

The second theory - endosymbiosis - has had a much more difficult and rocky road to traverse from ridicule to what I would call, muted acceptance. It was only by the late 1980s or even after that that it achieved some degree of scientific acceptance, and it has still not reached very far into the public conciousness. Unless you are a biologist you most likely haven’t heard of it and you haven’t heard of Lynn Margulis, it’s tireless advocate over 5 decades. It gets no more than a one paragraph mention in the Victorian Year 12 Biology textbook. Needless to say, I don’t teach it to primary school kids, although I am sure if I did they would love the idea of it.

The reason for this disparity is, I think, that while continental drift was revolutionary it could, quite readily, be incorporated into the prevailing view of the natural history of the earth, and it explained a lot of issues in geology that were a bit of a mystery up till then. Endosymbiosis, on the other hand, was really radical, and it just did not fit in with the existing view of biology and evolution. It still doesn’t really. And there weren’t thought to be any great mysteries in these fields that needed explaining by a new theory. It is still, generally, either ignored or, to my perception anyway, seen by most biologists as an interesting but fairly peripheral idea.

I think this is a pity and something that should change. To some extent, this is because of my own personal view of science and how it interacts with society. I am a science teacher and also a musician and songwriter. And I write songs about scientific ideas that I find interesting and inspiring and this one, to me, has interest and inspiration in spades. It is one of those theories that I would describe as poetic. The songs I write are a kind of science poetry. With ideas like this one though, I don’t have to do much to create the poetry, it’s already there! Two cells fuse to become one. Two bacteia, two individuals, two free living individual selves, fuse to become one, more complex thing.

If you think about it, this can have huge implications on how we see ourselves. Philosophical implications. Implications for our sense of self. Because we are made of the kind of complex cells that I am talking about. And I have to tell you something that you may find strange, you may find disturbing, you may find wonderful, you may even find silly. But it is, in essence true……I have to tell you that you are not quite who you think you are…….You might think of yourself as one whole, singular, individual entity but I have to tell that you are not….In truth you are intrinsically divided…. Divided along very ancient lines. You are actually a colony - a colony of different creatures.

I’m not just talking about the fact that if you include the various things covering your body and inside your intestinal tract and all the other parts of you that are open to the environment, your own cells are outnumbered by about 9 to 1. No, these things crawling in and on you – countless bacteria, viruses, amoebas, worms and mites – you would definitely recognise as foriegners. Intimate foriegners, but foreigners none the less. And although you might not be aware of just how intimate their coexistence is with you – like the tiny mites that live at the base of your eyelashes, eating dead cells and oils that you secrete and coming out at night and crawling all over your body looking for more food - you would probably be right. Although where you finish and they start may be dificult to discern at times. Some of these things just don’t do boundaries very well. They most certainly do not respect personal space. Personal space is simply an opportunity for them to set up camp!

No, I am talking about the cells that make up your body, that you would definitely regard as your own. Well, I’m sorry to say, but they are not completely yours and yours alone. They are actually a mish mash of stuff you have borrowed. Stuff you have borrowed from the bacterial world. Stuff you borrowed and never gave back! If you want, you can think of them as your own. But it’s a bit like that cd you borrowed off a friend years ago and forgot to give it back and now it’s like, well they’ve probably forgotten about it and it’s too late to worry about it, so it feels like it’s really mine, kind of a thing. I’m sorry, it might feel like that cd is yours, but we know it’s really on permanent loan!

This is what the situation is when we consider mitochondria - the little energy powerhouses that are contained within almost every one of the billions of cells that make up your body. These little energy factories were once separate, individual, free living things. They were free living, oxygen respiring bacteria that were ingested by another anaeorobic bacterium that was sort of having trouble coping with all this stuff, oxygen, that was building up in the atmosphere around that time, a billion or so years ago. And instead of digesting it’s meal, the meal became integrated, fused with the devourer. Food became self! Two individual entities became one, to form a new, more complex individual.

We don’t know the exact process by which the fusion occurred. It may be that you are a product of bacterial indigestion. Or the mitochondrial bacteria may have been invaders or parasites of the other cell. However it happened, associations that were once ferocious became benign, invasions turned into a truce.

So in a very real sense you are not a discrete individual entity with a single evolutionary history. Your body is made up of multiple bodies with separate histories. If you were a plant, you would have another, once separate, creature in your cells.  The chloroplast. These energy factories that convert sunlight into food were once also separate, squirming little bacteria!

These events are part of the theory of endosymbiosis (meaning symbiosis ‘inside’ the cell). Events that biologists now accept have occurred in the evolution of eukaryotic organisms. That is animals, plants, fungi and protists. All life forms bigger and more complex than bacteria, that contain a nucleus and organelles in their cytoplasm. That they are accepted, is due to the work of one woman – Lynn Margulis. Whether there were other fusions, in addition to these two, is still an issue of argument and debate, but it is also to some extent, still, an issue that is just sort of ignored.

Certainly, knowledge has been growing in recent times about all sorts of interesting symbioses between various organisms. There was one in the news recently. Animals, of course, never obtained chloroplasts. A photosynthesising animal has never evolved. Well, no, actually…at least one has. There is this sea slug that eats algae and incorporates the chloroplasts into its body. This thing looks like a big, green floating leaf. And it doesn’t just get the chloroplasts from the algae, it has incorporated some of the algae’s genes into its own DNA. So this is not just a temporary kind of merger. It is a permanent fusion of two distinct species. Lynn Margulis believes this kind of symbiosis, one that becomes a permanent merger, is actually the major driver of evolutionary change. She calls this symbiogenesis – symbiosis resulting in the formation of new species.

Lynn Margulis is a science hero of mine. She was an amazing, original, insightful, controversial, revolutionary, even heretical scientist. She was also described as stubborn and combatative and someone who would not listen to the arguments of others. She was probably the kind of person Paul Kelly had in mind when he wrote the song ‘Difficult woman’. She died in 2011 at the age of 73 and although she was widely recognised, often rather grudgingly and belatedly recognised, in the field of biology, she is not well known to the general public. She died believing that her belated recognition for endosymbiosis and the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts was not enough…was no where near enough.

She began as a student in cell biology in the late 1950s. DNA had recently been discovered as the genetic material and everyone knew that genes resided in the nucleus. Margulis, an iconoclast from the start, started looking for DNA in the cytoplasm of cells. No-one had been too interested in this before, they didn’t know if there was any DNA there, and hadn’t thought to ask why there should be any. As far as DNA and genes were concerned the action was in the nucleus. After a few years of looking though, she found evidence of DNA in the chloroplasts of Euglena, a single celled protist similar to the Paramecium you might have studied at school. She was also reading up on the strange ideas of two Russian scientists and one obscure American from decades earlier who had in fact proposed that the organelles of complex cells were the evolutionary result of a symbiosis between bacteria. These ideas had been developed at a time when little was known about the inner workings of the cell and they were unrefined and largely speculative. In the West they were either ignored or, as I said before, ridiculed. Margulis took them seriously, and she started to link them to her research on cytoplasmic DNA. She started to think about origins, the origins of these organelles she was studying. She suggested that the presence of DNA in chloroplasts was due to their evolution from previously free living, photosynthesising cyanobacteria. But she didn’t stop there, she extended the idea of endosymbiosis to mitochondria and other organelles including cilia and flagella.

Her first paper outlining this idea was rejected by 15 scientific journals before being published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1967. It gained her some noteriety, mainly of the ‘isn’t this a cute, funny little idea’ kind. It was not taken seriously by many. Over the next few years she conducted more research, gathered more morphological and DNA evidence, and refined her ideas. She was pregnant at the time, linked in her own symbiosis with her unborn daughter. One individual about to become two. Her perspective broadened, her ideas became bigger. She developed her theory of symbiogenesis – symbiosis resulting in the evolution of new forms of life. Her ideas were radical. In effect, she was rewriting both the history and classification of life on earth. In her view, there are really just two kinds of life – bacteria and everything else. Every visible life form on the planet is just a combination, or community, of bacteria. Life is like a pointilist painting. From far away you see animals and plants and fungi and things. Up close you just see points, which are the bodies of bacteria, only arranged in different ways to create different super-organisms.

She wrote a book outlining her theory. Although she had been contracted by a publisher to write it, the manuscript was rejected when she submitted it due to strident critiques from other scientists. Finally, she got her book - ‘Symbiosis in cell evolution’ - publlished by another company, in 1970. She continued to revise and refine her ideas. Slowly, people began to listen. She argued that in addition to mitochondria and chloroplasts other cellular organelles are also the result of symbiogenesis. According to Margulis, lots of other bits in your cells have also been borrowed from bacteria through a symbiotic merger. For example, the cilia and flagella of eukaryotic cells, and even the wriggling tails of sperm, are the incorporated bodies of various cork screw shaped bacteria known as spirochetes. Other kinds of spirochetes evolved into the internal cellular cytoskeletal structures -  microtubules and the centrioles which coordinate cell division. These symbioses, she claimed, were the major events in the evolution of life. The rest was just window dressing.

Eventually, she was proven to be correct about mitochondria and chloroplasts. A ‘smoking gun’ was found for these ancient symbioses. With the advent of DNA sequencing techniques a tell-tale sign emerged showing what happened, and ‘whodunnit’. This sign was uncovered by another scientific iconoclast who thought outside the box. Carl Woese was studying the ancient evolutionary relationships of bacteria. Something no-one thought could really be done. It had all happened too long ago, and had left too little record. But the record is there, in the DNA of mitochondria, chloroplasts and bacteria today. Woese found that if you look at a mitochondria, its DNA is totally different to the DNA of the nucleus of the cell it resides in, but it is very similar to that of a certain kind of oxygen respiring bacteria with a very ancient lineage. Similarly, chloroplast DNA is unlike the nuclear DNA of its present eukaryotic host cell but very like that of certain photosynthesising bacteria. Just as Margulis had postulated. With this result, even her staunchest critics had to agree that she was right. Ok…she was right….about this.

But as for the other stuff…..As far as the cilia and cytoskeletal systems go, there has been no smoking gun found….yet! No DNA has been detected in these structures. Maybe it has been lost over the course of evolution. Maybe it was never there and Margulis is wrong on these points. Her critics, and there are quite a few, argued that she should have been happy to be vindicated about mitochondria and chloroplasts. And so please, now, could she just stop banging on about this other symbiosis stuff. But she would not be quiet, to the end she argued stridently that evolutionary theory, with its focus on random mutation and natural selection as the drivers of adaptation, is missing a huge part of the story of life on earth. In her view it is symbiosis that is central to evolutionary change. Mutation and selection are relatively minor players. It is symbiogenesis that is the primary source of novelty and innovation in evolution. The rest, as she said, is just window dressing.

So why, has symbiosis not been wholeheartedly embraced as an evolutionary mechanism? According to Margulis it is because biologists are simply unwilling to look for it, because they are stuck in a mindset that sees evolution as solely driven by competition and natural selection. In addition, the focus for traditional evolutionary theory has been primarily on animals, and, the last half billion years of earth’s history, while what happened for the 3 billion years before that, and what happened in all the other kinds of living things - plants, fungi, protists and particularly, bacteria - has been relatively ignored. In her view, all the major events in the evolution of life on earth occurred before complex, multicellular animals even appeared, through bacterial mergers. It is bacteria that are responsible for most of the interesting features of life like reproduction, movement and photosynthesis. All the rest was just the icing on the cake! This changes the big picture of evolution. Her picture of of the story of life is not a tree of species forever diverging to form finer and finer distinct twigs, but a web, where the branches merge and fuse together to form new, composite entities. Symbiogenesis is the big, central story of evolution.

This big idea is still resisted by the scientific establishment. This may be because it is wrong. Or it may be because it is too radical and demands too much change of the biological status quo. It would require more than just a few paragraphs in the textbooks about the interesting but supposedly rather marginal origin of mitochondria. It would require this to become part of the main story and lots of other stuff to be added too. It would require the books to be completely rewritten. Whether they ever will, remains to be seen. Time will no doubt eventually reveal the truth. It is my belief, however, that Lynn Margulis’s ideas are not finished with, and will continue to filter provocatively into the world of biological science and into the minds of the general public for decades to come. It may be that my favourite quote of hers turns out to be both correct and prescient. In an interview towards the end of her life, after decades of fighting her critics, clinging stubbornly to her radical ideas, and never backing down, she was asked: ‘Do you ever get tired of being controversial’. Her reply was typical of this great, forthright, combatitive, iconoclastic scientist – “I don’t consider my ideas controversial”….she said ….”I consider them right”.

 
Taking the plunge - Going down Alice’s rabbit hole with Jessie what is empty space? What I love about science is that one question leads to a multitude of others. Not only that but one simple question thrown up by a curious, inquiring mind can lead to a whole big world of wonder and theory that can get curiouser and curiouser the more you find out, just like the strange universe uncovered by Alice when she made her trip down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. So ‘What is empty space?’ Jessie asked when we were talking about what she had been learning about solids, liquids, gases and vacuums in school science. Just like me, when told that gases consist of atoms that are widely spaced, wizzing around all over the place, she naturally thought: OK, we’ve got these atoms but what is it that is inbetween them, that they are wizzing around in? And what is a vacuum? If we take all the atoms out, what is left. Nothing….just nothing was the teachers’ answer. In between the atoms is nothing. But this wasn’t very satisfactory to a curious, logical mind like Jessie’s – If it’s nothing how come it takes up space? What actually is nothing? Can nothing actually be something? So where does this rabbit hole of inquiry lead us in the wonderful world of evolving scientific knowledge? It leads to lots of places that are connected by their own little rabbit holes. It’s a whole rabbit warren down there. Everything connects, though the passage ways may not be obvious. You’ve got to explore and it may take a while, but that’s what I love about science. Ok, we could start with Einstein (never a bad place to start) and the most famous equation in science - E=mc2 - which tells us that what we call matter and energy are basically the same thing, matter is just a form of concentrated energy. So it’s not just atoms we need to think about in comparing nothing with something, it’s energy as well. We can also consider that there are different ‘kinds’ of space. There’s outer space, there’s the space that Jessie was referring to between atoms in a gas and there is the space inside atoms – lots of it - space is everywhere! Let’s start with the atom where the central nucleus, that can be considered a kind of tangible solid thing, is tiny and sits in the middle surrounded by lots of space. If the atom was a cathedral of space, the nucleus would be a fly inside it. There is something in all the surrounding space but it’s not a terribly useful something when it comes to visualising what is filling up this emptiness because it is an electron and electons are weird as. An electron is so small it could virtually be nothing. It is described as point-like, that is, like coordinates on a graph – a virtually dimensionless point in space. Electrons do at least have a measurable mass, unlike some particles we will meet shortly, but they are otherwise pretty incomprehensible. Their behaviour can be described with incredible precision mathematically via the most powerful predictive theory in science – quantum mechanics – but unfortunately for us, when for it comes to understanding and visuallising them, this is all based on probabilities of what they will do. It is impossible to say where exactly an electron is and what it is doing at any particular time and even worse they can apparently be in more than one place at the same time. They may even be everywhere at once and they can somehow be affected instantaneously by what another electron is doing on the other side of the universe. Tricky little customers indeed! So what we are told is that the space around the nucleus of an atom, even the simplest one Hydrogen with only one electron, consists of an ‘electron cloud’ of general fuzziness where the electron can be sort of everywhere all at the same time. Sort of … somehow. OK, so we’ve sorted that bit of intra-atomic empty space out. What we are talking about here is the wave-particle duality that applies to electrons and most other little particles in the ‘particle zoo’ of atomic physics and the rather boringly titled Standard Model which describes the fabric of the universe. Waves and particles are most commonly discussed with relation to light and the photons of which it is composed. Light is of course classified as energy rather than matter so how, you might ask, can it be composed of particles. Don’t worry, photons are even more point-like than electrons and have no mass at all. They are pure energy if you like. They are also both particle and wave. Like, if you were looking at a whole bucket of water you might see waves flowing over the surface. But then, imagine you look at one particular peak of one wave and all the rest of the water in the bucket suddenly disappears. You would now be looking at a particle in the bucket. Thus waves become particles and vice versa depending on your point of view. So light waves propagate through the vacuum of outer space carried by massless particles called photons. These of course travel rather fast and always at the same speed, the speed of light, the speed limit of the universe (but that’s another story that we will have to save for a different rabbit hole). This leads us from waves to the even trickier concept of fields, of which there are different kinds, and they extend throughout empty space everywhere. They come in electric, magnetic and other varieties and now there is even a Higgs field courtesy of the famous boson discovered recently with the Large Hadron Colider. So what are fields and how do they relate to nothingness? Well, like the electron cloud they can be measured with precision. We can measure the strength of magnetic fields and gravitational fields all over the universe by measuring what they do to stuff in their vicinity like say a compass needle. But if you ask what a magnetic field is you wind up pretty much in tautology land. A magnetic field is what we are measuring. What are we measuring? We are measuring the magnetic field. And around and around we go without much of an explanation. So empty space is full of these fields but what they are, and are they something or nothing… I don’t know. Does anyone? I am sure there are lots of ideas out there but you can be sure they are not at present easily explainable to people like you and me! Next we can look directly at the core of the question ‘what is a vacuum’ and the idea that it may not contain any matter (as in atoms) but it does contain energy – so called vacuum energy. This is produced by something to do with virtual particles (these things makes even photons seem solid!) and quantum fluctuations. Virtual particles pop in and out of existence on super nanosecond time scales like some sort of an invisible fireworks display. This can somehow create a ridicusously weak but measurable force that can actually move a piece of metal some prepostorously short distance, called the Casimir force. Vacuum energy leads us to Dark Energy which may be related to it or even be the same thing, but may be somehting different. It is even more inexplicable than quantum fluctuation but it must have something to do with nothingness and empty space bacause there is so much of it around. Given that matter and energy are the same thing, the universe is reckoned to be made of 4% ordinary matter, 21% dark matter and 75% dark energy. Dark matter is stuff that is presumably material, so it is definitely something rather than nothing, but it can’t be seen or detected in any way other than by its gravitational effect on stuff that we can see. Dark energy is stranger than Dark matter. It is something that is making the universe expand at an increasing rate rather than contract in on itself due to the attractive force of gravity pulling all of the matter together. So it’s a major thing making up the universe but we have no idea what it is at the moment. It might be vacuum energy but apparently the mathematics between the two phenomena doesn’t correlate at present. Then there is the conundrum of matter and antimatter. Antimatter is real, tangible, observable stuff. Every particle of matter has a ghostly twin of antimatter that is its opposite or mirror-image in all regards, like the good and evil twins in many stories. As with virtual particles, pairs of antimatter and matter particles can be conjured out of empty space by ‘agitating excitations in the quantum field’ (to quote a youtube video). These particles don’t last very long however, because when matter and antimatter meet they annihilate each other to produce, you guessed it…. Nothing! Luckily, slightly more matter than antimatter was created when the unverse first formed so, after a lot of particles zapped each other out of existence, we were left with a universe of the left over matter particles. Why this happened no-one knows. If the amounts of matter and antimatter had been the same we would be living in a universe of nothingness. OK, maybe not living in a universe of nothingness. So, lastly we come to the mother of all nothingness - the Big bang and where or what, if anything, it came from. Did it come from a quantum fluctuation of another universe? Can something appear out of nothing? What is nothing anyway? Oh, that’s back where we started this rabbit hole adventure. But I don’t think we are just back where we began at the beginning of this discussion. It’s been quite a wild ride and maybe your mind like mine has been opened a little bit more by the journey. Who would have guessed what that teacher saying ‘It’s just nothing’ was missing out on. You just have to be willing to plunge down the rabbit hole.  ‘The vacuum is one of the places where our knowledge fizzles out and we’re left with all sorts of crazy ideas’

Taking the plunge - Going down Alice’s rabbit hole with Jessie what is empty space?

What I love about science is that one question leads to a multitude of others. Not only that but one simple question thrown up by a curious, inquiring mind can lead to a whole big world of wonder and theory that can get curiouser and curiouser the more you find out, just like the strange universe uncovered by Alice when she made her trip down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

So ‘What is empty space?’ Jessie asked when we were talking about what she had been learning about solids, liquids, gases and vacuums in school science. Just like me, when told that gases consist of atoms that are widely spaced, wizzing around all over the place, she naturally thought: OK, we’ve got these atoms but what is it that is inbetween them, that they are wizzing around in? And what is a vacuum? If we take all the atoms out, what is left. Nothing….just nothing was the teachers’ answer. In between the atoms is nothing. But this wasn’t very satisfactory to a curious, logical mind like Jessie’s – If it’s nothing how come it takes up space? What actually is nothing? Can nothing actually be something?

So where does this rabbit hole of inquiry lead us in the wonderful world of evolving scientific knowledge? It leads to lots of places that are connected by their own little rabbit holes. It’s a whole rabbit warren down there. Everything connects, though the passage ways may not be obvious. You’ve got to explore and it may take a while, but that’s what I love about science.

Ok, we could start with Einstein (never a bad place to start) and the most famous equation in science - E=mc2 - which tells us that what we call matter and energy are basically the same thing, matter is just a form of concentrated energy. So it’s not just atoms we need to think about in comparing nothing with something, it’s energy as well.

We can also consider that there are different ‘kinds’ of space. There’s outer space, there’s the space that Jessie was referring to between atoms in a gas and there is the space inside atoms – lots of it - space is everywhere! Let’s start with the atom where the central nucleus, that can be considered a kind of tangible solid thing, is tiny and sits in the middle surrounded by lots of space. If the atom was a cathedral of space, the nucleus would be a fly inside it. There is something in all the surrounding space but it’s not a terribly useful something when it comes to visualising what is filling up this emptiness because it is an electron and electons are weird as.

An electron is so small it could virtually be nothing. It is described as point-like, that is, like coordinates on a graph – a virtually dimensionless point in space. Electrons do at least have a measurable mass, unlike some particles we will meet shortly, but they are otherwise pretty incomprehensible. Their behaviour can be described with incredible precision mathematically via the most powerful predictive theory in science – quantum mechanics – but unfortunately for us, when for it comes to understanding and visuallising them, this is all based on probabilities of what they will do. It is impossible to say where exactly an electron is and what it is doing at any particular time and even worse they can apparently be in more than one place at the same time. They may even be everywhere at once and they can somehow be affected instantaneously by what another electron is doing on the other side of the universe. Tricky little customers indeed! So what we are told is that the space around the nucleus of an atom, even the simplest one Hydrogen with only one electron, consists of an ‘electron cloud’ of general fuzziness where the electron can be sort of everywhere all at the same time. Sort of … somehow. OK, so we’ve sorted that bit of intra-atomic empty space out.

What we are talking about here is the wave-particle duality that applies to electrons and most other little particles in the ‘particle zoo’ of atomic physics and the rather boringly titled Standard Model which describes the fabric of the universe. Waves and particles are most commonly discussed with relation to light and the photons of which it is composed. Light is of course classified as energy rather than matter so how, you might ask, can it be composed of particles. Don’t worry, photons are even more point-like than electrons and have no mass at all. They are pure energy if you like. They are also both particle and wave. Like, if you were looking at a whole bucket of water you might see waves flowing over the surface. But then, imagine you look at one particular peak of one wave and all the rest of the water in the bucket suddenly disappears. You would now be looking at a particle in the bucket. Thus waves become particles and vice versa depending on your point of view. So light waves propagate through the vacuum of outer space carried by massless particles called photons. These of course travel rather fast and always at the same speed, the speed of light, the speed limit of the universe (but that’s another story that we will have to save for a different rabbit hole).

This leads us from waves to the even trickier concept of fields, of which there are different kinds, and they extend throughout empty space everywhere. They come in electric, magnetic and other varieties and now there is even a Higgs field courtesy of the famous boson discovered recently with the Large Hadron Colider. So what are fields and how do they relate to nothingness? Well, like the electron cloud they can be measured with precision. We can measure the strength of magnetic fields and gravitational fields all over the universe by measuring what they do to stuff in their vicinity like say a compass needle. But if you ask what a magnetic field is you wind up pretty much in tautology land. A magnetic field is what we are measuring. What are we measuring? We are measuring the magnetic field. And around and around we go without much of an explanation. So empty space is full of these fields but what they are, and are they something or nothing… I don’t know. Does anyone? I am sure there are lots of ideas out there but you can be sure they are not at present easily explainable to people like you and me!

Next we can look directly at the core of the question ‘what is a vacuum’ and the idea that it may not contain any matter (as in atoms) but it does contain energy – so called vacuum energy. This is produced by something to do with virtual particles (these things makes even photons seem solid!) and quantum fluctuations. Virtual particles pop in and out of existence on super nanosecond time scales like some sort of an invisible fireworks display. This can somehow create a ridicusously weak but measurable force that can actually move a piece of metal some prepostorously short distance, called the Casimir force.

Vacuum energy leads us to Dark Energy which may be related to it or even be the same thing, but may be somehting different. It is even more inexplicable than quantum fluctuation but it must have something to do with nothingness and empty space bacause there is so much of it around. Given that matter and energy are the same thing, the universe is reckoned to be made of 4% ordinary matter, 21% dark matter and 75% dark energy. Dark matter is stuff that is presumably material, so it is definitely something rather than nothing, but it can’t be seen or detected in any way other than by its gravitational effect on stuff that we can see. Dark energy is stranger than Dark matter. It is something that is making the universe expand at an increasing rate rather than contract in on itself due to the attractive force of gravity pulling all of the matter together. So it’s a major thing making up the universe but we have no idea what it is at the moment. It might be vacuum energy but apparently the mathematics between the two phenomena doesn’t correlate at present.

Then there is the conundrum of matter and antimatter. Antimatter is real, tangible, observable stuff. Every particle of matter has a ghostly twin of antimatter that is its opposite or mirror-image in all regards, like the good and evil twins in many stories. As with virtual particles, pairs of antimatter and matter particles can be conjured out of empty space by ‘agitating excitations in the quantum field’ (to quote a youtube video). These particles don’t last very long however, because when matter and antimatter meet they annihilate each other to produce, you guessed it…. Nothing! Luckily, slightly more matter than antimatter was created when the unverse first formed so, after a lot of particles zapped each other out of existence, we were left with a universe of the left over matter particles. Why this happened no-one knows. If the amounts of matter and antimatter had been the same we would be living in a universe of nothingness. OK, maybe not living in a universe of nothingness.

So, lastly we come to the mother of all nothingness - the Big bang and where or what, if anything, it came from. Did it come from a quantum fluctuation of another universe? Can something appear out of nothing? What is nothing anyway? Oh, that’s back where we started this rabbit hole adventure. But I don’t think we are just back where we began at the beginning of this discussion. It’s been quite a wild ride and maybe your mind like mine has been opened a little bit more by the journey. Who would have guessed what that teacher saying ‘It’s just nothing’ was missing out on. You just have to be willing to plunge down the rabbit hole. 

‘The vacuum is one of the places where our knowledge fizzles out and we’re left with all sorts of crazy ideas’

Favorite Popular Science Books

General

Bill Bryson A short history of nearly everything

Natalie Angier The Canon

Christopher Potter You are here

David Bodanis The Secret house

Jacob Bronowski The Ascent of Man

Carl Sagan

Kay Redfield Jamison Exuberance:The passion for life

Physics

David Bodanis E=mc2, Electric Universe

Richard Feynman Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman?

Bob Berman Strange Universe

Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw Why does E=mc2? (And why should we care?)

Biology/Evolution

Lewis Thomas Lives of a cell

Rob Dunn Every Living Thing                      

Richard Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker

Stephen Jay Gould Wonderful Life:The Burgess Shale and the nature of history

Michael Pollan The Botany of Desire

Jane Goodall 50 years at Gombe

Geology/Paleontology

Sean B. Carrol Remarkable Creatures

Richard Fortey Earth

Simon Winchester The map that changed the world

Jack Repcheck The man who found time

William Bryant Logan Dirt: The ecstatic skin of the Earth

Peter Ward Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future

Gabrielle Walker Snowball Earth

Chemistry

Oliver Sacks Uncle Tungsten

Theodore Grey Elements

Lauren Redniss Radioactive:Marie and Pierre Curie:A tale of love and fallout