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The Essay
Show #524
Why Nature Abhors a Vacuum
David Gunn

Science tells us that Nature abhors a vacuum. This sweeping statement is based on a single experiment conducted in 1951at the University of Hummock-on-Smythe in southwesternmost Lincolnshire. A team of technologists from the Department of Calamitology placed Gladys Pimpersall, a.k.a. Mother Nature, in an eighteen foot square cage along with--and you probably expect me to name a Hoover or Kirby or other brand of reputable suction appliance here. But, no. The scientists were able to collect a real vacuum--that is, a space devoid of matter--and place it in the cage with the young woman.

Some background on Mrs. Pimpersall is in order. I say she was "young," but in dog years she had already eclipsed the 30,000 mark, for Gladys was descended from a race of Übermatriarchs who typically lived a couple of parsecs shy of eternity. The "Mrs." was a courtesy title, only; there never was a Mister Pimpersall, and formal recognition of the "Ms." moniker was more than a dozen years away. If the image of a member of a race of superbeings was of a tall, athletic and powerful person, Mrs. Pimpersall not only broke the mold, she demolished it. She was frumpy, dowdy and trended towards portly. She sported the normal human complement of eyes, ears, mouth and noses, however they were so arranged on her face as to bring to mind Kandinsky's Bauhaus years. Her pallid complexion was overseen by a mop of vermicular hair that was tied up in dozens of knots, both traditional and Gordian. Her fingers sported numerous rings, however they were more annuli than jewelry. Whatever tatty dress she wore was always accessorized by a rumpled apron, whose pocket's contents--half a shoelace, a desiccated Lozenge of Probability, two ounces of slurry, a daguerreotype of an Archimedes' screw, plus other less unidentifiable objects--suggested a monopoly on usefulnotness. To the unacquainted, she projected a condition of general disorder. Ah, but if ever a book's cover was misjudicable, Gladys' was.

She was, after all, Mother Nature, overseer of fertility, fecundity and agricultural bounty throughout the world. And her demeanor could instantly change from passive to strong-willed and aggressive, usually when one least expected it. The Hummock-on-Smythe technologists knew this of Mrs. Pimpersall; thus, with two years, easy, of research grant funding riding on the outcome, they were eager to learn how she would coexist with a vacuum.

Fortunately for the calamitologists, Gladys was in one of her flaccid moods when she was ushered into the cage. And it was a "cage" in laboratory parlance only. With plush carpeting, two overstuffed chairs, subdued overhead lighting and wall paintings of cheerful images of rotifers at play, the enclosure resembled a well-appointed three-star hotel room. Mrs. Pimpersall sat in the one available chair; the technologists had already lugged in and secured the vacuum to the other. Confirming that she was comfortable, they backed out of the room and latched the door. In the adjoining laboratory, they gathered behind one of the rotifer pictures, which was actually a one-way mirror, to observe. Stopwatches started; a bank of gravimeters, olfactometers and variometers was activated; a video tape recorder--the world's first--consigned the images to magnetic tape; the first two boxes of the research grant funding questionnaire were ticked. Then, the scientists waited.

Nothing happened.

That is, nothing perceptible to the technicians and their limited ability measuring instruments. But Gladys Pimpersall had indeed noticed the vacuum and had already begun to dislike it. She couldn't say why exactly it bothered her. There was, after all, nothing to it. It didn't make a sound; it didn't smell; it didn't taste; except for the container that held it, it wasn't visible or palpable.

That was it, of course. The vacuum was counter to everything for which Mother Nature stood. It eschewed life.

Abruptly, the technologist who had bolted a salami and tripe sandwich just before the experiment had commenced had an attack of borborygmus, and the ensuing intestinal rumbling reverberated throughout the laboratory. Gladys heard it, too, and her ears perked. It momentarily gladdened her because it was a sound of life, no matter it wasn't especially celebrated in polite company. Then, logic told her that it was a sound that couldn't exist in a condition of utter nothingness. Her keen ears swiftly divined the source behind the picture, and her fleeting delight was superseded by a mounting rage. A guttural keen escaped from her mouth. It was mezzo piano at first, but the longer she stared at the vacuum, the louder it got. After only a minute, it was pinging the needle on the dilatometer.

Gladys reached into her apron pocket and withdrew the Lozenge of Probability. She sucked on it long enough to rehydrate it. As it pulsed with an improbable life of its own, she flung it angrily at the vacuum.

According to probability theory, a random event such as, say, flinging a lozenge at a vacuum--even a lozenge that had its own agenda--can produce an infinite number of non-deterministic phenomena. Number 30,647 in that list (coincidentally, the number of years old attributed to Mrs. Gladys Pimpersall) was for the vacuum to turn into an Electrolux and suction up the lozenge. Which it did. Which in turn nettled Mother Nature all the more. Her dislike for the vacuum intensified until she hated it, loathed it, abhorred it! With a shriek, she picked up her chair and hurled it at the vacuum. Another non-deterministic phenomenon ensued, this one involving the observers in the adjoining laboratory wincing a bit before winking out of existence, taking with them the cage's walls and floor.

The sudden lack of footing redirected Mother Nature's focus to absquatulate from the building. Once outside amidst the verdant hills of southwesternmost Lincolnshire, she quickly calmed down, the out-of-sight vacuum for the moment out of mind. Extracting the shoelace end from her apron pocket, she placed it in her mouth and chewed contemplatively on it. The feeling of abhorrence was not for an Übermatriarch to experience. In the future, she would just try to avoid voids.

Ahh, but can she avoid the 524th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar? Perhaps, unlike today's composer, whose ten-year long abstinence from the program finally ends today. And who better to void his absence contract that our own suctorial KalVac?