“Natura abhorret a vacuo!”

Or, “This is not the nihil you’re looking for.”jedi-mind-trick

The Christian Science Monitor has an intriguing thought somewhat cloying piece on the inconstancy of the speed of light in a vacuum (kind of a big deal!).

It begins with a perhaps unwitting nod to the cosmological argument (emphasis added):

Where did the speed of light in a vacuum come from? Why is it 299,792,458 meters per second and not some other figure?

The simple answer is that, since 1983, science has defined a meter by the speed of light: one meter equals the distance light travels in one 299,792,458th of a second. But that doesn’t really answer our question. It’s just the physics equivalent of saying, “Because I said so.” …
A pair of studies suggest that this universal constant might not be so constant after all. In the first study, Marcel Urban from the University of Paris-Sud and his team found that the speed of light in a vacuum varies ever so slightly.

This happens because what we think of as nothing isn’t really nothing. Even if you were to create a perfect vacuum, at the quantum level it would still be populated with pairs of tiny “virtual” particles that flash in and out of existence and whose energy values fluctuate.

And then the crux of the article:

[A]s we just noted, nothing is something. Urban’s paper suggests that the speed of light and other constants “are not fundamental constants but observable parameters of the quantum vacuum.” In other words, the speed of light emerges from the properties of particles in the vacuum.

The metaphysical issue is quite simple, though it doesn’t sell as well as making nothing into not-quite-something. Properties belong to substances. Substances are not nothing. Hence, the properties of the quantum vacuum belong to a substantial reality. As such, “nothing” is not being discussed. It’s a parlor trick, or perhaps a Jedi mind trick: “This is not the nothing you’re looking for.”

Given such facile reasoning, it’s no surprise how this CSMonitor piece ends up in a (whimsical) jumble:

Time will tell if this hypothesis is correct. And of course, by “time,” we mean “space and time,” by which we mean “the speed of light,” by which we mean “nothing,” by which we mean “the properties of the quantum vacuum.”

Is the new aim of scientific reasoning simply to win comedic support? I doubt it, but such writing doesn’t help the cause. Stay tuned.


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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