A recent interview on NPR, in their “Short Answers to Big Questions” segment, went to special extremes to demonstrate how monumentally bad science journalism is these days. My discussion here will come in two parts, one short, and one a great deal more detailed. The short part will be a quick debunking of supposedly scientific claims from a conventionally scientific standpoint. In particular, statements are made in this interview with absolute confidence that cannot possibly stand up to even the most basic grasp of physical science. The longer discussion will have to do with philosophical criticisms that run beyond most of contemporary science. This is because so much of that science has degenerated into pure model centrism, and consequently fails to ask any of the fundamental questions that need to be raised. The motivating idea behind all of this is the idea of “empty” space.
The offending NPR piece opened with a question about how empty a volume of space would be were there only (say) three atoms or molecules within a volume of about one cubic meter. After a few moments discussion about the volume of molecules of air in a cubic meter at sea level (a discussion that appears to contain an unimportant typographical error), the discussion moves out into space, into deep, deep space. The conversation leads to the following (slightly edited) highly problematic exchange:
if there are points in space with only three atoms per square meter, what fills in the rest? The answer is nothing…
for a physicist, the absence of matter is nothing. I mean there is still space and time there, but you know, there – the absence of matter we consider to be a state of, you know, zero matter, zero energy density, is a way of putting it.
The problems here come at two levels, one of fairly ordinary physics and the other at a deeper philosophical level. I’ll deal with both in turn. Continue reading