We are Mostly Empty Space

Occasionally during the opening homily of a yoga class the teacher will say, “Scientists tell us that we are 90% empty space” and go on to use this as a metaphor for openness and possibility. (“Breathe into your empty space” and the like.) There’s no point in throwing stones at this–people take their metaphors where they find them, and those of us who are sticklers for scientific accuracy have learned to tune out whatever follows the phrase “Scientists tell us…” I don’t object to the observation that we are mostly space, I just don’t understand why people find it moving.

Unlike other ideas from particle physics that have been repurposed for mystical uses, this is basically true. The prevalence of emptiness is clearly the case in the old “solar system” model of the atom that remains the most widely known. More modern quantum mechanical theories complicate the picture by insisting that we can’t be sure exactly where the protons, neutrons, electrons and so forth are and so represent them as space-filling smears of possible location, but the basic fact remains: the universe is for the most part a whole lot of nothing. For social mammals that require constant infusions of food and water to survive, concepts like emptiness and nothingness carry an unsurprisingly strong emotional charge, and it’s the particular genius of yoga to give them a positive spin. If tapping emotions is all you’re doing, fine. Likewise fine if you’re just riffing on the contrast between appearance and reality. What is misguided is presenting this as the revelation of a hidden truth.

“Sure the wooden floor we’re standing on feels solid, but it’s actually empty space.” What does that mean? Does that mean that the moment I learn the floor is mostly just space I will fall through? Could I use my understanding of the prevalence of emptiness to walk through walls like a cartoon ghost? Experience has taught me that passing my hand through a pool of water is easy but passing my hand through a block of wood is impossible. Does atomic physics reveal this to be an illusion?

It had better not. A scientific theory that predicted that people can walk through walls would be abandoned as incorrect. The job of science is to give an account of the mundane facts of life, not to manufacture occult knowledge. Sometimes science can seem like occult knowledge because it may postulate the existence of really strange entities like electrons or black holes. But no matter how arcane they are, in the end the behavior of those entities must square with our everyday experience. This is usually not a problem, because the stranger the entity, the more indirect our interaction with it. (Sometimes it’s really indirect–as in via particle accelerators and radio telescopes.) So according to quantum mechanics, electrons behave differently than baseballs, but that’s okay because electrons are much, much smaller than baseballs. (Likewise you don’t look at a bunch of bacteria under a microscope and expect them to be wearing tiny coats and ties.) The atoms that make up the floor are mostly empty space, but nevertheless when you bring a bunch of floor atoms together they form a surface that appears to our senses as solid in every meaningful way. That the everyday arises from this strangeness (which isn’t really strange–it is merely unfamiliar because we ourselves are not atom-sized) is the even more profound truth.

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