One day, a coworker said to me (having no clue what he was about to inspire), “I tried that, but nothing happened.”
“That’s impossible,” I replied.
When I started my reply, I simply couldn’t believe that the suggested approach wouldn’t have yielded any change. But by the time I finished, I realized I was stating a fact: It’s not possible for nothing to happen. The instant nothing happens, it ceases to be nothing and becomes something.
I pondered for a moment and then explained this to my coworkers. This launched into a now infamous series of discussions about nothing.
My coworker tried to assert that nothing could happen. “What if a tree doesn’t fall in the forest?” he asked.
“That’s not nothing. The tree remained standing. It didn’t crush the plants in the path of its fall. Sap continued coursing through its tree-ish veins,” I pointed out.
He conceded the point (or perhaps, silently, my insanity). Thereafter ensued much thought on my part about nothing. As it turns out, nothing is not alone. There are several terms we use regularly to refer to things which cannot exist, for if they ever did, they would cease to exist (or at least become the opposite of what they are (or aren’t, in this case)).
Let us begin with nothing. Nothing is the absence of everything, or the state of everything not happening. It can’t actually exist / occur. If it came into existence / occurred, it would no longer be nothing; it would have become something (namely, the thing which just happened). Alternately, for nothing to exist, everything else would have to cease existing, or at least, everything else would have to stop happening. In which case, no one would be around to observe that nothing had turned into something.
Which takes us to one of those other things which cannot exist: no one. Like nothing, the minute no one crosses into the realm of existence, it ceases to exist (try holding on to something, it may help you keep your balance). In that instant, it goes from no one to someone. And if it’s someone, it has to exist somewhere, because it’s not possible for someone to be nowhere.
Nowhere is another of those fascinating non-existent non-things. Should nowhere exist, either it would become somewhere, or everywhere would cease to exist. The next time a parent asks a teenager, “Where are you going?” and the teenager replies, “Nowhere.” perhaps the parent should worry about more than the teen’s intentions and safety, perhaps they should worry about the very fabric of reality! I mean, what would the world be like if nowhere ceased to (not) be? We would either be deprived of our commonly-used term, or we would suddenly cease to be (having vanished with wherever we happened to be at the time - it having ceased to exist so that nowhere could).
If nothing else, just think of the stopping-power this conversation would have when presented to the teenage mind. “No!” the parent screams, “You’ll destroy the universe!”
Of course, that could never happen, no more than never could ever happen. Because if it did happen, it wouldn’t be never anymore, but it would be then, the instant that it happened... Interestingly, you can combine exactly two non-existent things into a statement of truth (nevermind what some English teacher said). For example: “Nothing can never happen.” Or: “Nothing exists nowhere.” But as soon as you use more than two, it all falls apart: “No one never went nowhere.” While seemingly true, it implies two things that simply are not possible. First, it suggests that no one did go somewhere sometime (I mean, if you never went nowhere, then you must have gone somewhere else, or at least stayed put, and to stay put, you need a somewhere to stay put in) - a sheer impossibility since no one doesn’t exist. Second, it suggests that while no one never went nowhere, someone did (go nowhere) - another impossibility, since nowhere doesn’t exist.
As you can clearly see, we should be grateful these things don’t exist, because if they did, either everything else (including this intriguing article) would cease to exist, or teenagers the world wide would run out of answers to the most annoying questions.
I leave you now with two observations to help keep the discussion going. First, there is nothing about which we know everything, except nothing. (Just think how much fun it would be to point this out at lunch one day.)
And second, after about an hour of discussing mostly nothing with my dad and one of my brothers, I wondered aloud, “Do you suppose we could get a government grant to study nothing?” After we all expressed reasonable certainty that we could, my brother then observed, “Hey, that would be like getting something for nothing!” (Should you take this idea and actually get a grant to study nothing, I claim a portion thereof, as an expert in the field, of nothing.)