Something for Nothing, by Percival Everett

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From the novel Dr. No, which will be published next month by Graywolf Press.

1.

It is postulated that before the so-called Big Bang (like many, I imagine that it was probably more of a whimper) the primordial constituent elements were things like helium-4, helium-3, deuterium, and protium. The sophomoric question—but no less vexing for that quality—is: Where did that stuff come from? And just what is the universe expanding into, through, and/or toward? It is either nothing or a something we call nothing and not that dark matter bullshit that so many buy into. Most believe, wrongly, that nothing is merely the emptiness between subatomic particles. Nothingness is not emptiness any more than it is the absence of something, some thing, some things, or substance. The actual Big Bang is coming, as what the universe came from is catching up to what it will become. To experience the power of nothing would be to understand everything; to harness the power of nothing would be to negate all that is, and the sad, scary, crucial idea here is that this might well be a distinction without a difference.

2.

My understanding of nothing requires that it first be acknowledged that the acceptance of nothing is more than a philosophical and mathematical adoption of that very useful number zero. Zero might serve occasionally as a numerical placeholder, but nothing does not. Though nothing might be, tautologically, not anything, it is also not “not anything.” It is supposed that nothing comes from nothing, which is to say that nothing yields nothing, which yields nothing, which yields not anything but nothing, blah, blah, yak. Infinity might be boring, but it is profoundly inescapable and, surprisingly, rude. I will spare you and myself any lengthy discussion of zero, as in the face of nothing zero is actually nothing, though neither is it anything to sneeze at.

3.

Who could have known that Euclid would be correct only in space—the fact that earthly application is all Euclidean notwithstanding? The flatness of space makes it a difficult place to hide nothing, especially because space is full to its flat brim of the rest of the universe. Is there other life out there? Don’t know. Don’t care. Are there other dimensions? No. We seem always to want to imagine dimensions that we assert are impossible for us to perceive, no doubt the same impulse that stuck us with notions of deities, but perhaps in space there are only two dimensions, and let’s face it, time is hardly a dimension at all, no more of a dimension than love, dismay, or dizziness. Time, like nothing, in one way, cannot be seen (being seen is not the same as being observed), and though we have clocks, incredibly precise clocks, time cannot be measured, as one cannot measure any abstraction. Nothing, on the other hand, is not abstract but the most concrete of the concrete world, and it not only precedes humans and rocks and lava and gases but will continue, if not cause, the collapse of the convention of time, the implosion of galaxies, and the evaporation of radio signals projected into deep space.

4.

Of my understanding and, for lack of a better word, theory of nothing, it has been said, as it was said of David Hilbert, Das ist nicht Mathematik, das ist Theologie. Axioms, postulates, theorems, and proofs bored me into senselessness. My younger, baby self would have quarreled without end with my present stance, but of course I was smarter when young, for what that’s worth. In my lab, I look at my containers—many shapes, sizes, and materials—full of nothing. I could open none of them, as to open one would have been to empty all. I was asked often to do just that, so as to prove my assertion. Such a demonstrative proof, however, would have at once shown me to be correct and also necessarily wrong. To empty a box of nothing would have been to lose nothing and to have nothing left to show for it. So, nothing doing.


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