HAPPY NATIONAL NOTHING DAY! Join us as we celebrate the vast emptiness of the lack of anything. Today we’re celebrating with writer and fellow fan of nothing Norm Quarrinton (Twitter: @NormanQ)!! LET’S PARTY!!

Show Notes

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History, fun facts, statistics about the topic

  • How do we define “nothing”? (What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “nothing”?)
  • An article from Vice summarizes this conundrum pretty well. “Nothing is a concept so deceptively simple that it inhabits the strange intersection of science, philosophy, and language itself. Like a child asking “Why?” to the point of absurdity, trying to get to the bottom of this problem can be pretty frustrating”
  • “‘Nothing’, used as a pronoun subject, is the absence of a something or particular thing that one might expect or desire to be present (“We found nothing”, “Nothing was there”) or the inactivity of a thing or things that are usually or could be active (“Nothing moved”, “Nothing happened”). As a predicate or complement “nothing” is the absence of meaning, value, worth, relevance, standing, or significance (“It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing”; “The affair meant nothing”; “I’m nothing in their eyes”). 
    • Grammatically, the word “nothing” is an indefinite pronoun, which means that it refers to something. According to cute-calendar.com, “one might argue that ‘nothing’ is a concept, and since concepts are things, the concept of “nothing” itself is a thing. Many philosophers hold that the word “nothing” does not function as a noun, as there is no object to which it refers.”
  • “Nothingness” is a philosophical term for the general state of nonexistence, sometimes reified as a domain or dimension into which things pass when they cease to exist or out of which they may come to exist, e.g. God is understood to have created the universe ex nihilo, “out of nothing”. Creatio ex nihilo is one of the most common themes in ancient myths and religions
  • Western philosophy has been obsessing over “nothingness” for a  very long time. To avoid linguistic traps over the meaning of “nothing”, philosophers will often use a phrase such as not-being to make clear what is being discussed
    • One of the earliest Western philosophers to consider nothing as a concept was Parmenides, a Greek philosopher of the monist school who lived in the 5th century BC. He reasoned that “nothing” cannot exist because to speak of a thing, one has to speak of a thing that exists. Since we can speak of a thing in the past, this thing must still exist (in some sense) now. From this, he concludes that there is no such thing as change, there can be no such things as coming-into-being, passing-out-of-being, or not-being
      • Parmenides was an influence for other philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, though Aristotle shrugged him off, concluding, “Although these opinions seem to follow logically in a dialectical discussion, yet to believe them seems next door to madness when one considers the facts.” 
    • Aristotle provided an escape from the logical problem posed by Parmenides by distinguishing things that are matter and things that are space. In this scenario, space is not “nothing” but, rather, a receptacle in which objects of matter can be placed. The true void (as “nothing”) is different from “space” and is removed from consideration. 
      • This characterization of space reached its pinnacle with Isaac Newton who asserted the existence of absolute space.
      • Rene Descartes, however, espoused an argument similar to Parmenides, which denied the existence of space. For Descartes, there was matter, and there was extension of matter leaving no room for the existence of “nothing.”
    • In modern times, Albert Einstein’s concept of spacetime has led many scientists, including Einstein himself, to adopt a position remarkably similar to Parmenides. On the death of his friend Michelle Besso, Einstein consoled his widow with the words, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of time. That signifies nothing. For those of us that believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” 
    • Existentialists really like to spend a lot of time considering ‘nothing.’ “The most prominent figure among the existentialists is Jean-Paul Sartre, whose ideas in his book Being and Nothingness are heavily influenced by Being and Time of Martin Heidegger, although Heidegger later stated that he was misunderstood by Satre. 
      • Sartre defines two kinds of “being” or etre. One kind is etre-en-soi, the brute existence of things such as a tree. The other kind is etre-pour-soi which is consciousness. Sartre claims that this second kind of being is “nothing” since consciousness cannot be an object of consciousness and can possess no essence. Sartre uses this conception of nothing as the foundation of his atheist philosophy, since equating nothingness with being leads to creation from nothing. Hence, God is no longer needed for there to be existence
    • Modern day philosopher Jim Holt describes nothingness as “a state in which everything is not self-identical. If for all x, x is unequal to x; that sentence in logic describes a state of nothingness. It doesn’t help the imagination, but it doesn’t give rise to any contradictions. It can only be true if nothing exists, because if anything exists, it equals itself.”
      • He also contends that, “Nothing is the simplest way that reality could turn out; it’s the least arbitrary, because it excludes everything. Once you take that seriously, you begin to think, ‘That’s how it should have been; why should there be something rather than nothing?’”
  • Of course, the understanding of ‘nothing’ varies between cultures. In some Eastern philosophies, the concept of “nothingness” is characterized by an egoless state of being in which one fully realizes one’s own small part in the cosmos. 
    • Sunyata, or emptiness, is considered a state of mind in some forms of Buddhism–achieving ‘nothing’ in this tradition allows one to be totally focused on a thought or activity at a level of intensity that they would not be able to achieve if they were consciously thinking. 
    • A classic example of this is an archer attempting to erase the mind and clear the thoughts to better focus on the shot
    • Some have pointed to similarities between the Buddhist conception of nothingness and the ideas of Martin Heidegger and existentialists like Sartre
  • Before moving on from the philosophical interpretations of “nothing,” I would be remiss to not mention Seinfeld, which is popularly known as “the show about nothing” as many of its episodes are about the minutiae of daily life. 
    • According to a BBC article, “Was Seinfeld Really ‘About Nothing’?”, the show “revealed the same problems of being that nauseated the existentialists: the tiniest acts of its characters come together to wreak havoc, sometimes on other characters, more commonly on unsuspecting strangers.”
    • “…one could argue [the show] has a strong nihilistic streak throughout its run – if it’s about ‘nothing’, it’s about the nothingness of existence, the futility of it all.”
    • Just as with ‘nothing’ throughout history, books have been written about Seinfeld since it’s conclusion, colleges offer classes on it that tend to fill to capacity, and think pieces still regularly pop up about the show, despite its finale airing over twenty years ago, on May 14, 1998.
    • From the article, Seinfeld is one of many major works of pop culture that “show us why we say the things we do, do the things we do, thinking the things we think, like the things we like. Seinfeld teaches us what at least one sliver of life was like in 1990s America: silly, banal, self-indulgent, self-obsessed and maybe even nihilistic underneath it all” and shows us “the more universal tendencies we share: we’re probably still a little self-indulgent, even more self-obsessed and still questioning what it all means. And any show that makes us think about all of that – while making nihilism and existentialism fun – can’t really be about nothing after all, can it?”
  • Both philosophically and mathematically, the concept of “zero” has a bumpy history. The ancient Greeks hated the concept of zero so much that they refused to incorporate it into their number system, even when their astronomical calculations called for it. They were uneasy, thinking, “How can nothing be something?” 
    • Aristotle once wrote, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and so did he (I’m naming my next dog Aristotle). His complete rejection of vacuums and voids and his subsequent influence on centuries of learning prevented the adoption and the concept of zero in the Western world until around the 13th century, when Italian bankers found it to be extraordinarily useful in financial transactions
    • Other terms for ‘zero’ include ‘nought’, which is where“naughty” is derived from because it was bad to be nothing. Zero was thought of as Devil’s work and the antithesis of God
    • “Zero” was first seen in cuneiform tablets written around 300 BC by Babylonians who used it as a placeholder (to distinguish 36 from 306 or 360, for example). The concept of zero in its mathematical sense was developed in India in the 5th century, and popularized in Europe by Fibonacci in the eleventh century
    • Any number divided by zero is…nothing, not even zero. The equation is mathematically impossible
    • A mathematical concept of nothing proposed by science journalist Charles Seife, who authored “Zero: The Biography of of a Dangerous idea,” proposed starting with a set of numbers that included only the number zero, then removing zero, leaving with is called a null set
    • In computing, “nothing” can be a keyword used in place of something unassigned, a data abstraction. Although a computer’s storage hardware always contains numbers, “nothing” symbolizes a number skipped by the system when the programmer desires. May systems have similar capabilities but different keywords, such as “null”, “NUL”, “nil”, and “None”
  • In physics, the concept of “nothing” can be a touchy and complex subject to consider. Generally, a region of space is called a vacuum if it does not contain any matter, though it can contain physical fields. In fact, it is practically impossible to construct a region of space that contains no matter or fields, since gravity cannot be blocked and all objects at a non-zero temperature radiate electromagnetically
  • According to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, “Even if [space] is as empty as it can be, there are still quantum mechanical [properties] – they’re just in a zero-energy state not doing anything. But you could probe the vacuum, as particle physics does, and discover its properties.”
    • Empty space is instead filled with pairs of particles and antiparticles, called virtual particles, that quickly form and then, in accordance with the law of energy conservation, annihilate each other in about 10-25 seconds
    • These virtual particles popping in and out of existence create energy. In fact, according to quantum mechanics, the energy contained in all the power plants and nuclear weapons in the world doesn’t equal the theoretical energy contained in the empty spaces between these words
    • Carroll suggests that, “It’s probably better to think of nothing as the absence of even space and time, rather than space and time without anything in them.”
  • Forbes.com further reiterates that “not everyone agrees about what we mean, scientifically, when we talk about what ‘nothing’ actually is” and helpfully outlines the four scientific meanings of nothing:
    • A time when your “thing” of interest didn’t exist–if something fundamentally arose where there was no such thing before
    • Empty space–if you take all the matter, antimatter, radiation, and spatial curvature away
    • Empty spacetime in the lowest-energy state possible–if you then take away any energy inherent to space itself, leaving only spacetime and the laws of nature
    • Whatever you’re left with when you take away the entire Universe and the laws governing it
  • A few more fun facts from the Discovermagazine.com article “20 Things You Didn’t Know About…Nothing”
    • There is vastly more nothing than something. Roughly 74% of the universe is “nothing,” or dark energy. 22% is dark matter. Only 4% is baryonic matter, the stuff we call ‘something.’
    • And even something is mostly nothing. Atoms overwhelmingly consist of empty space. Matter’s solidity is an illusion caused by the electric fields created by subatomic particles
    • There is more and more nothing every second. In 1998 astronomers measuring the expansion of the universe determined that dark energy is pushing apart the universe at an ever-accelerating speed. The discovery of nothing – and its ability to influence the fate of the cosmos – is considered the most important astronomical finding of the past decade
    • But even nothing has a weight. The energy in dark matter is equivalent to a tiny mass; there is about one pound of dark energy in a cube of empty space 250K miles on each side
    • In space, no one can hear you scream: Sound, a mechanical wave, cannot travel through a vacuum. Without matter to vibrate through, there is only silence
    • Light can travel through a vacuum, but there is nothing to refract it. Alas for extraterrestrial romantics, stars do not twinkle in outer space
    • Black holes are not holes or voids; they are the exact opposite of nothing, being the densest concentration of mass known in the universe
    • It is said that Abdulhamid II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, had censors expunge references to H2O from chemistry books because he was sure it stood for “Hamid the Second is nothing”
    • Medieval art was mostly flat and 2D until the 15th century, when the Florentine architect Filippo Brunalleschi conceived of the vanishing point, the place where parallel lines converge into nothingness. This allowed for the development of perspective in art
    • Vacuums do not suck things. They create spaces into which the surrounding atmosphere pushes matter
    • Current theories suggest that the universe was created out of a state of vacuum energy, that is, nothing
    • In other words, nothing could be the key to the theory of everything
  • Urban Dictionary’s top definition of “nothing” is: “Actually means ‘something,’ but is used when you don’t feel like explaining,” posted by user Melanie on October 21, 2003
    • The second most upvoted Urban Dictionary definition of “nothing” was posted by user Doomeyes, also on October 21, 2003, and is thus: “Nothing, put simply, is the deepest, shallowest, brightest, darkest, widest, thinnest, and incomprehensibly empty emptiness, so empty that it is only prevented from collapsing upon itself because there is no substance to collapse in upon, or no substance to do the collapsing, or even any substance to think or daydream about collapsing upon absence of presence or presence of absence, which is still utterly and completely absent of form and shape and mass and presence that is absent from the existence of anything. In short, nothing is the total, absolute, final, and complete spot that is both positive and negative, young and old, and to sum it all up the opposite of everything in existence, for there is no existence in nothingness. It has even been thought that nothingness itself doesn’t even exist, and that the existence of nothingness is so impossibly ludicrous and insane that if anyone were to actually realize or see nothingness, the entirety of the expanse of the Everything would simply vaporize, leaning even more nothingness in its place. 
      • Nothingness is nothing, to put it simply. (really, this time)”

History of the holiday

  • According to WIkipedia and various other sources, National Nothing Day is an “un-event” proposed in 1972 by San Francisco Examiner columnist Harold Pullman Coffin, and has been observed annually since 1973, when it was added to Chase’s Calendar of Events. The purpose of the holiday is “to provide Americans with one National Day when they can just sit without celebrating, observing or honoring anything.” 
    • Now remember, the third Monday of every January has, since 1986, been celebrated as MLK Jr Day, which falls between the 15th and 21st. This means that one-in-seven January 16ths now fall on a public holiday, which effectively usurps the very nature of National Nothing Day
      • Unfun fact: Some states were resistant enough to observing MLK Jr Day that it wasn’t until 2000 that it was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time
    • In contrast, the Realist Society of Canada has a religious holiday called THABS or “There Has Always Been Something” Day), which is dedicated to the celebration of the “realization” that “if there was ever nothing, there would be nothing now”. It is celebrated on July 8 each year. 
  • Fun fact! Harold Pullman Coffin was born in Reno, NV on January 26th, 1905 and is buried at Masonic Memorial Gardens on Stoker Ave, near Idlewild Park and Reno High School.

Activities to celebrate

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  • Do nothing! But use the hashtag #NationalNothingDay on social media when you brag about all the nothing that you’re doing
  • Watch Seinfeld. You can start with the show’s self-mocking clips where Jerry and George pitch a show to NBC about “nothing”
  • Watch the 2003 movie “Nothing”, a canadian philosophical comedy-drama about two friends and housemates who open their front door one day and discover that the entire world beyond their house is gone, replaced with a featureless white void
  • Watch “A Short History of Nothing” on bbc.co.uk. 
  • You can post some of the following “nothing” quotes to your social media, and anyone under 14 on your friends list will think you’re really deep
    • “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
    • “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” – Plato, The Republic
    • “To do nothing is the way to be nothing.” – Nathanial Hawthorne
    • “Tired, tired with nothing, tired with everything, tired with the world’s weight he had never chosen to bear.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
    • “I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.” – Oscar Wilde
    • “I must be made of nothing to feel so much nothing.” – Michelle Hodkin, The Evolution of Mara Dyer
    • “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt
    • “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
    • “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Clean Well Lighted Place
    • “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!” – Audrey Hepburn
  • From bustle.com, you could
    • Watch or read “Much Ado About Nothing”
    • Have a milkshake at Tom’s Restaurant in NYC, which is a nod to Seinfeld
    • Watch GoT and remember that Jon Snow knows nothing
    • Challenge yourself to do nothing for two minutes. This tip includes a link to the website donothingfor2minutes.com, which is essentially an ad for the Calm app and features an ocean at sunset in the background, the sounds of waves, and a timer that resets every time you interact with your computer in any way. Basically a beginner’s meditation session
    • Chow down on a Nothing Bundt Cake, from the bakery Nothing Bundt Cakes
    • Brush up on why we should all get comfortable doing nothing, five reasons for which we learn from The Guardian. 
      • First, “doing nothing” isn’t really doing nothing. “Savouring the pleasure of idleness” isn’t passive–according to psychologists, “It’s a learnable set of skills for relishing the moment, for example, by focusing on each of your senses in turn.” It could be considered synonymous with “feeling alive.” 
      • Second, aimlessness, rest, and even boredom can boost creativity. One reason why is the “incubation effect”: ceasing to focus on a project seems to give your unconscious permission to get to work. Other studies looking at boredom suggest it motivates people to find interesting ways to alleviate it, thereby triggering creative ideas. Aimless thinking can also combat the tunnel vision that can result from fixating on goals. When you have no specific end in mind, you’re less likely to exclude new ideas as irrelevant
      • Third, too much busyness is counterproductive.  The article explains that “we chronically confuse effort with effectiveness: a day spent on trifling tasks feels exhausting and virtuous, so we assume – often wrongly – it must have been useful.” However, Dutch work expert Manfred Kets de Vries informs us that busyness “can be a very effective defence mechanism for warding off disturbing thoughts and feelings.” Essentially, it’s when doing nothing that we can finally confront what matters.
      • Fourth, the brain depends on downtime. Not only is downtime essential for “recharging”, but to process the data we’re deluged with daily, to consolidate memory, and reinforce learning. Downtime and rest strengthen the neural pathways that make these things possible. In a 2009 study, “brain imaging suggested that people faced with a strange task – controlling a computer joystick that didn’t obey the usual rules – were actively coming to grips (nice turn of phrase) with learning this new skill during seemingly passive rest periods.”
      • And fifth, you’ll regain control of your attention. Doing nothing isn’t easy at first. It takes a good amount of willpower to resist the urge to do things. According to the meditation instructor Susan Piver, “busyness is seen as a form of laziness” in Buddhism. It’s a failure to withhold your attention from whatever random email, task, or webpage lays claim to it. One trick could be to schedule time to “do nothing.” “Just don’t expect others to understand when you decline some social event on the grounds that you’re busy not being busy.”
    • Listen to Nothing. The band. 
    • Whisper sweet nothings to someone
    • Read The Book of Nothing
    • Take a trip to Nothing, Arizona. It’s now a ghost town, but once held an impressive population of 4 people and contained a gas station and small convenience store
      • The town sign read, “Town of Nothing Arizona. Founded 1977. Elevation 3269ft. The staunch citizens of Nothing are full of Hope, Faith, and Believe in the work ethic. Thru-the-years-these dedicated people had faith in Nothing, hoped for Nothing, worked at Nothing, for Nothing.”
  • Deseret.com has a couple of book recommendations, including “The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe,” by John D. Barrow; “Nothing Matters: a book about nothing,” by Ronald Green; “The Book about Nothing,” by Mike Bender
  • Deseret.com also encourages you to use “nothing” in as many phrases as possible, such as
    • “All or nothing”
    • “Nothing but…”
    • “Thanks for nothing”
    • “Nothing to lose”
    • “Next to nothing”
    • “I got nothing”


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