Recently, the media have been full of articles about Michael
Richards’ use of the N-word in his unacceptable racial outburst
in response to hecklers in a comedy club. It’s a sad chapter in
the life of the actor who played the unforgettable Kramer on
Seinfeld, a TV show about another N-word – nothing. Nothing
plays an important role in another recent, much more important
story. But first, I have a bone to pick with the current state of
affairs in college football, a sport that I apparently have been out
of touch with until the recent success of Rutgers, The State
University of New Jersey.
Am I wrong or didn’t it used to be that a football game lasted 60
minutes and if, at the end of that time, the difference in the scores
of the two teams was nothing, the game was over and it was
called a tie? When did the word “tie” become extinct in college
football and why is it necessary to have a “winner”? Virtually
anyone in New Jersey will know that the cause of my concern is
last week’s classic Rutgers-West Virginia game, which was a 23-
23 tie after 60 minutes. And when did college football institute
the overtime practice of giving both teams a shot from the 25-
yard line? At the end of regulation play, I made a short trip to
the bathroom and came back and was shocked to find a play in
progress in the red zone! No kickoff!? You can see I haven’t
kept up with the college sport for some time.
In case you’re not aware of the results of the game, in the first
overtime both Rutgers and West Virginia kicked field goals. In a
second overtime, both teams scored touchdowns and got the
extra points. Certainly at this point, a tie was in order. But no, in
a third overtime both teams again scored touchdowns. However,
West Virginia emerged victorious by a 41-39 score when a
mandatory 2-point-after-touchdown attempt by Rutgers failed.
New Jersey and West Virginia can both be proud of their teams’
gallant efforts and neither deserved to lose. Bring back the tie
and an acceptance of a difference in scores of “nothing”!
I obviously haven’t mastered the complexities of college football
so let’s turn to an article about nothing in the November 17 New
York Times, called to my attention by Brian Trumbore. The
article, by Dennis Overbye, was headlined “9-billion-year-old
‘Dark Energy’ Reported”. To put this latest on dark energy in
context, let’s go back to something we’ve discussed earlier,
namely Albert Einstein and his “biggest mistake”, the so-called
cosmological constant. When Einstein came up with his theories
of relativity, he was bothered by one thing. At that time it was
thought that our universe was static, neither expanding nor
contracting. This was embarrassing. With all those stars
attracting each other, the whole universe should collapse due to
all that gravity. Einstein proposed to solve this by fudging his
theory, introducing a “cosmological constant”. This constant
was supposed to be some kind of weird force that worked against
gravity and kept everything in place.
As the years passed, it became clear that the universe was far
from static and was expanding. Einstein found that his
cosmological constant wasn’t necessary and called it his biggest
mistake. Furthermore, the Big Bang model explained why things
were flying away from each other. Unfortunately, Einstein
didn’t live to see that his “mistake” has been rehabilitated.
About 8 years ago, astronomers found that the expansion of the
universe is actually speeding up and has been doing so for some
time. Suddenly, it was realized that there is indeed some kind of
anti-gravity force that’s pushing against gravity and winning the
battle. This “dark energy” is just the sort of thing that Einstein
postulated in his cosmological constant. In fact, dark energy
makes up about 70 percent of the energy of the universe.
What the New York Times article referred to is recent work of
astronomers led by Adam Reiss using the Hubble Space
Telescope to look back in time as far as 8-9 billion years ago.
Without going into detail, what they find is that this dark energy
isn’t just a recent thing but has been working against gravity for
all that time. Just as impressive to me is that, although the data
have very large error bars at this time, it looks as though the dark
energy is or could be constant over these 9 billion years. In other
words, Einstein’s constant may really be a constant. I should
make such a “mistake”!
What does all this have to do with “nothing”? Well, this dark
energy may be related to the energy of nothing. What is the
essence of nothing? A vacuum, at least a true vacuum, will be
empty space with nothing in it. I’ve worked with vacuum pumps
but never came remotely close to the vacuum that exists in outer
space. However, as we’ve discussed before, the weird thing is
that “nothing” can have energy, the so-called “vacuum energy
density”. This vacuum energy may well be the explanation of
dark energy. How can a vacuum have energy? If it does have
energy how big is the vacuum energy density?
I’ve tried to find explanations or answers to these questions but I
must admit that I’m befuddled and won’t attempt to explain how
a vacuum has energy. However, there may be an answer to the
question as to the size of the vacuum energy density. I am
somewhat amused by the values theorists get depending on the
model they use. The answers range from zero to infinity! The
other approach is to actually try to measure the vacuum energy
density based on astronomical observations. At this time, it
looks like the zero guys are the closest to the truth. Based on the
latest Hubble measurements and earlier work from various space
missions, the measurements appear to be converging on a figure
of very roughly a billionth of a joule per cubic meter (a cubic
meter is somewhat larger than a cubic yard).
The joule is a unit of energy. As a battery man, I like to put
energy into terms of my electricity bill. We pay our light and
heating bill by how many kilowatt-hours we’ve used. Keep a
100-watt bulb burning for 10 hours and that’s 1 kilowatt-hour
(1,000 watt-hours). A joule is only a watt-second. So, if we
could somehow tap into that vacuum energy in a cubic meter, we
could burn that 100-watt bulb for all of about a hundred billionth
of a second. To put it another way, it would take a cube of
vacuum about 100 kilometers on a side to supply enough energy
to burn our 100-watt bulb for 1 second!
Even though this vacuum energy density is ridiculously small, or
at present appears to be that small, there are zillions of cubic
light years of vacuum out there and it’s apparently enough to
speed up expansion of our universe. The power of nothing!
Incidentally, if anything I’ve said in this column is in error I
plead guilty in advance. I’ve often said that one reason I write
these columns is that I hope that by trying to explain some tough
subjects, I may convince myself that I understand them.
And if you think those two points were nothing in that football
game, it probably cost Rutgers some hundreds of thousands of
dollars due to not being invited to one of the major BCS bowls.
Don’t ask me what BCS stands for, but it means money!
Allen F. Bortrum