Nothingness Theory Forum

Nothingness Theory

Personal Essays

© 1989 – 2007  Corey Kaup, Kaup Communications – all rights reserved

I. The Adventures of Bob the Physicist

II. Grampy's Philosophy of Bowling


The Adventures of Bob the Physicist

As the latch clicks, my life ends as usual. A moment before, I am clinging to the banister half way up the stairs. Gray light squeezes its way around my dad through the open front door. He says, “See you later alligator”. I reply using standard procedures, “after while crocodile”. The front door darkens the living room as it closes behind him leaving a dim translucent glow through that stupid square porthole. Of course everything is fine five minutes later as I eat breakfast with my mom.

The next day my life ends permanently. Every time my mother tries to explain what divorce means I run away. There is no place to run. A year later I come back in a body that is apparently living in my grandmother’s apartment.

During this strange period, the universe itself is going through some astounding changes. Sometimes space warps and stretches – time dilates or contracts depending on your point of view. This happens when Bob Zitter, my mother’s friend, makes up science fiction bedtime stories for you. The protagonist, a physicist (coincidently much like Bob) is always getting into trouble in parallel universes while investigating very slow moving giants, or extremely fast little creatures that appear through space-time portals.

In June of 1959, Bob and I are walking through the Museum of Science and Industry – my favorite place in the world. Within those hallowed walls the broiling streets of southeast Chicago cease to exist. They are replaced by forbidden views of the sacred inner workings of washing machines and the human heart (to name just two of many).

That’s nothing compared to what happens next. Bob inserts a key into a wall in the hallway just off the great atrium inside the main entrance. The wall opens to reveal a secret elevator. We emerge from the elevator in front of a desk where a guard with holstered sidearm questions Bob about my presence. The holster has thick black leather. A strap is buttoned over the hammer. You can see the substantial heft of the dark gunmetal and the texture of its dimpled brown handle.

Bob assures the guard that I (a mere seven year old boy) am no security threat and we enter the facility. It consists of room after room of school style desks facing blackboards covered with equations. I am transfixed by the bullets nestled inside the revolver. They are way more interesting than the equations.

Four decades later I read that this was a military think-tank organized for the purpose of laser actuated thermal detection of hidden enemy personnel. Bob is quoted in a physics journal as saying that “We discovered that an enemy soldier hiding in a rice paddy is warmer than the rice”.

In December of 1960, Bob and I make a DNA-molecule Christmas-tree ornament out of radishes and toothpicks. He invents a way for me to memorize the multiplication tables. Then we write a message on fake parchment and age it by soaking it in vinegar and heating it over a candle flame. We put it into an empty wine bottle, seal it with candle-wax and throw it into lake Michigan.

That night the physicist is caught in a war between two slightly out of phase space-time communities. He notices a funny looking insect as he discusses his predicament with the official “Assistant to the High Council”. The official becomes very agitated when the physicist brings his attention to the little creature. This is no insect; it is a very sophisticated robot spy. The official runs over and crushes the little machine with the heal of his shoe. As I fall asleep the swirling darkness engulfs the last contact I will ever have with Bob Zitter.

Three decades later I begin my first draft of “Nothingness Theory”, an essay on the nature of physics, existence, and human behavior. I cannot account for why I am driven to this, or how I can truly understand what I am writing about. It takes another decade for me to realize who planted the seed that evolves into “Nothingness Theory”. This realization is the potential solution to a chronic problem with Nothingness Theory; I have no verification of the accuracy of my statements about the laws of physics. I’m not a scientist, what if I misunderstand some fundamental principle? The entire idea can wind up being a bunch of nonsense.

All I have to do is locate Bob Zitter, an individual with whom I have had no contact for forty years. Thankfully, AltaVista returns only 50 web pages with references to “bob+zitter”. Only one of those refers to a Bob Zitter physicist. It is the web page of a university referred to as SIUC. The full name that goes with those initials is not written out anywhere on the site.

A professor has posted homework for his physics class, reminding them to use the experiment in “Laser Lab” by Prof. Robert Zitter. Thus coincidentally, I have initiated a search for Bob Zitter on perhaps the only day his name is on any website of the millions in the world.

This is just enough information for me to track down a phone number.

As I punch in the number, years and decades fall away. By the time the phone is ringing, a significant part of me is eight years old. “Hello”? The voice has a thick Yiddish accent, like my great aunts and great grandmother. “Can I speak to Bob Zitter”? I’m not sure if this is actually the Bob Zitter I am looking for. She says, “I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to me about that, I’m his wife”. “Is he Robert Zitter the physicist”? “Yes, but he died about four years ago… who is calling”? Fortunately, I have enough practice with overwhelming sorrow from my mother’s death in 1992 to be able to continue. “I’m Corey Kaup, I knew Bob forty years ago”. “Oh yes, he spoke about you often, I am delighted that you called”.

I find out that he also spoke about my mother – calling her “the smartest cookie I ever met”. He also has unpublished poems, stories and essays. Mrs. Zitter says that she will mail them to me.

A few days later a large manila envelope containing the unpublished writings of Bob Zitter arrives. There are several hundred pages of stories, letters, musings and articles. I am stunned to find this small flyer among them:

College of Science Lecture series

Department of Physics and Astronomy

College of Science, SIUC



Dr. Robert N. Zitter

The Physical Richness of Nothingness

October 11, 1982, 8:00 p.m.

    “Papa, what are you doing?” “Nothing.” “Then how do you know that you’re doing it?”



Man’s attempt to deal with nothingness shows an interesting evolution. For the ancient Greeks, there was obviously nothing to be said about nothing. A thousand years passed before the number “zero” and another thousand before the introduction of the “empty set” in mathematics and logic; both concepts have been invaluable. The old phrase “Nature abhors a vacuum” has given way to the realization that most of the universe is a vacuum. In today’s science, the vacuum bends, undulates, fluctuates and has bottomless pits called Black Holes. Increasingly, physicists are talking about what a vacuum is rather than what it is not.


Dr. Robert N. Zitter, born and raised in New York City, attended Brooklyn Technical High School and, in 1947, entered Robert Hutchins’ College of the University of Chicago. A BA degree in liberal arts was obtained in 1950, an MS in Mathematics in 1952, and a PH.D. in Physics in 1962, all at Chicago.

As a research physicist, Dr, Zitter was employed by Chicago midway laboratories to explore electronic and infrared-optical properties of semiconductors (1952-58), by USAF Air Weapons Research (1958-60), and by Bell telephone Laboratories for solid state and gas laser studies (1962-67). In 1967, he joined the staff of SIUC.

For the past seven years, Dr. Zitter has collaborated with Dr. David Koster of the Chemistry Department in research on infrared laser induced chemical reactions, with publications and presentations in international journals and at international conferences and with support by a National Science Foundation grant during 1976-78. In addition to standard physic courses, Dr. Zitter teaches a course called “Everybody’s Einstein” for the layman and regularly teaches the General Studies Course on astronomy.

This document has a very strong effect on me. If “Nothingness Theory” turns out to have substance, it will be due in significant part to the brilliant musings of a great teacher.

Perhaps I have been in contact with Bob Zitter for the last forty years after all.


C. Kaup – 11/10/2000

Grampy's Philosophy of Bowling

"Let the ball swing like a pendulum. You remember the pendulum at the museum. Feel the weight, make it work for you."

He's crazy. I'm not going to tell Grampy he's crazy, but there's no way a bowling ball is going to do any work for me.

Grampy looks like Groucho Marx. I love Grampy, but he's old. He doesn't know about hitting the pins hard. I want the pins to go flying off in all directions like a Buddy Bowmar strike.

Everything takes too long. The pin boy is slow, the ball is slow, Grampy is slow.

"Let everything go in one direction. When you force the ball it throws you off balance."

This is driving me crazy. It takes too long to get here, it takes too long to tie my shoes, and it takes too long to learn how to hit the pins.

At Least A Billion Years Later

Oh, oh. It looks like Bryn Mar is closed. The bowling alley has never been closed before. I don't think I can take this.

This is great! Nobody can stop Grampy. Grampy and his cigar can get in anywhere.

That is the coolest thing I've ever seen! I never thought I'd see the place behind the pins. Look, there's where the pin boys used to sit! Wow, they have pieces of the old lanes back there. They're all grey and dark, like the old pier.

Brunswick! What does that mean? that machine is huge. How will it fit in there? I hope Grampy is finding out when we can play.

Just Short of Too Much Later

There is a new whirring and clanking sound. The balls come back much faster, and you don't have to wait for the pin boy.

 Arms, legs and ball swing free. Like a pendulum. The pins fly everywhere. Life is perfect.

P.S. - Grampy's Philosophy of Golf (way later)

"Let the club swing like a pendulum".

Ok, I know Grampy looks more like Jack Benny than Jack Nicklaus, but it's a waste of time to dismiss Grampy.

Thwack! ...230 yards.

Life is perfect. 

C. Kaup - 8/10/04