Something or Nothing

Sten Odenwald. Patterns in the Void: Why Nothing is Important, Westview Press, 2002.

On one level this is an account of and history of our understanding of the vacuum, the raw potentiality out of which all things emerge, tracing the development of the notion that space and time, matter and energy are in some way patterns in this vacuum, forged by gravitation.

On another level however, it is account of the author's own confrontation with darkness and nothingness, from his childhood fears of the dark, to his mature contemplation of the deaths of his loved ones, his mortality and that of the universe itself, condemned current theories suggest to an eternal cold, dark senescence. Here Odenwald brings us close to the central emotional power of belief in the paranormal as he meditates on the yearning he feels for the magical folk world of his Swedish parents, and his adolescent belief in all things Fortean, ufological and paranormal that he left behind at college to pursue science. Indeed Odenwald may well be what might be called an encounter-prone personality, as he recounts a story of apparent synchronicity (a mysterious ringing of the doorbell and a sudden conviction that someone in Sweden had died, he goes to the door and no one is there, and a friend of his father's has died at that time), hearing the magical music of the mountains, a UFO experience, even a false awakening in which three Grays surround his bed. Someone not an astronomy professor might have made much of this (you bet Budd Hopkins would), but Odenwald seems these as examples of how the brain can make patterns out of the information coming in.

We can sense from Odenwald's dilemma, that the loss lamented is not that of awe and wonder, but of a warm and human world, one which cared for us, and which nothing and no one is finally lost.

Yet perhaps that nostalgia, like all nostalgias is for a world made rosy in retrospect. In the days of the old animism, the world was often seen as extremely threatening. C. D. Broad once reminded his psychical research audience that if they and he were right the world might not only be far stranger than we can imagine but far nastier. Visions of paradise can inspire the terrible as much as the noble, and fear of hellfire was always far worse than any fear of extinction. Perhaps the nostalgia for the magical is really a nostalgia for Disneyworld rather than the real world. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 80, January 2003.

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