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Literature / The Nothing Equation

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"The Nothing Equation" is a lesser-known short story written by Tom Godwin (better known for writing "The Cold Equations").

A scientist called Green is left alone to man an observation bubble light years away from Earth — a post that has had terrible psychological effects on his predecessors. Green tries to reassure himself that nothing is wrong, but gradually the same paranoia begins to creep on him...

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The story contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The Aloner: The bubble is only big enough for one man and some equipment.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Horne, the first man to be assigned to the bubble, had a log, but the story only shows the last entry he wrote in it before he overdosed on sleeping pills. It's a nervous paragraph about how whatever it is doesn't like him; it's going to get into the bubble and he wants it to happen while he's sleeping.
  • Book-Ends: The story starts with Green being left alone in the bubble, noting the emptiness of his surroundings but telling himself that the others were wrong; there is nothing hostile outside the bubble. The story ends with Larkin, Green's replacement, having the same reflections, practically down to the word.
  • Disability Immunity: Captain McDowell, who takes the scientists to and from the bubble, keeps grumbling that it would be better to leave one of his roustabouts to man the bubble because they're too dumb to get spooked like the scientists.
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  • Exact Words: It's always repeated that all the scans and instruments can find "nothing" waiting outside the bubble, and when asked what they're so terrified of, the observers can only say "Nothing". What nobody realizes, at least until they've spent some time in the bubble, is that those astronauts literally fear nothing. That is to say, they fear the emptiness of space, that their bubble will crack and spill their little pocket of life and air into the endless void.
  • Here We Go Again!: The story ends with Green cracking from paranoia and being replaced by another scientist, Larkin, who is likewise convinced that the same thing won't happen to him.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The story is about a man who's sent out to an observation bubble in space, far away from any space station or planet. The people who've manned the bubble previously have all gone insane and/or committed suicide, afraid of what's outside the bubble. The protagonist, however, is quite certain that there's nothing out there. He's right, there's nothing. A whole lot of nothing, and he gradually becomes paranoid that it's going to break in.
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  • Poor Communication Kills: The problem continues at least partially because none of the scientists who spend time in the bubble can ever explain coherently what's bothering them and rambling about "nothing" or about something unspecified (when anyone can see that there's no one to threaten them for miles around) doesn't help.
  • Space Isolation Horror: A scientist named Green is left alone in a one-man observation bubble that has had catastrophic effects on his predecessors. Over time, he becomes paranoid as the realization weighs on him that it's just him in a relatively thin-skinned pod miles from anywhere with the "nothing" of space all around.
  • Space Madness: An astronaut is assigned to a one-man astronomy station at the edge of the galaxy. He knows that his replacement went insane, and the one before killed himself, but is confident he won't crack up. Slowly though he becomes obsessed with idea of just how vulnerable he is out here, with a hull one sixteenth of an inch thick holding 2 million pounds of pressure. He starts charting every possible vulnerable point and ends up months later cowering under a makeshift tent, convinced the "nothingness" outside is just waiting for a chance to come rushing in. The story ends with a fourth astronaut taking over the post also confident that he won't crack up; after all there's 'nothing' out there to be afraid of...
  • Too Dumb to Fool: The people that pilots the spaceships that ferry the scientists to and from the observation bubbles (and his fellow pilots) lampshades that he's too much of a lunkhead to actually care about thinking of such things as the apparent fragility of the bubble and other science facts that had driven every observer insane in the time he's been in service, and thus the pilots would probably do a better job being allowed to stay on the bubbles instead of ferrying scientists.
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