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What Heinrich Rudolf Hertz taught us about nothingness

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Illustration by Eoin O'Carroll

(Read caption) Honored today by a Google Doodle, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz helped show us how nothing, pictured here, is not always what it seems.

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Today Google honors Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the German physicist who, in his all-too-short career, taught the world invaluable lessons about optics, electromagnetism, and, in a contribution that is often overlooked, the science of nothingness.

"Horror vacui," goes the phrase, usually attributed to Aristotle's fourth book of Physics. Nature abhors a vacuum. True or not, it's certainly the case that those studying nature have long struggled with the concept of empty space. Aristotle thought that, because space empty of all matter offers no resistance, objects moving within it would move infinitely fast. Thus the objects surrounding any void would instantly fill it before it could form. Emptiness, he concluded, was therefore impossible. Every part of the universe must be filled with something, even if we can't detect it.  

Aristotle's arguments persuaded scholars for a good 1,500 years or so. Medieval Christians were enjoined from entertaining the possibility of a vacuum, until the Catholic Church's Condemnations of 1277 broke Aristotle's monopoly on the natural sciences by admitting that, at the very least, a vacuum would not be beyond the powers of an omnipotent God. 

But even though contemplating empty spaces became theologically permissible, the idea of nothingness still proved troubling to early modern thinkers, even as others were setting about constructing pumps and siphons. In the seventeenth century, when Irish chemist Robert Boyle demonstrated his "Pneumatical Engine" and when French physicist Blaise Pascal developed a barometer, they were attacked by Thomas Hobbes and RenĂ© Descartes, who each embraced a philosophy known as plenism, which left no space for emptiness.


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