(ORDO NEWS) — Matter is what makes up the universe, but what makes up matter? For a long time this question was difficult for those who thought about it, especially for physicists.
Reflecting the latest trends in physics, my colleague Jeffrey Eisen and I described a renewed way of thinking about matter. We assume that matter is not made up of particles or waves, as was thought for a long time, but, more fundamentally, that matter is made up of fragments of energy.
Five to one.
The ancient Greeks conceived five building blocks of matter – from bottom to top: earth, water, air, fire and ether. Ether was the matter that filled the heavens and explained the rotation of the stars as seen from the Earth’s point of view.
These were the first basic elements from which the world could be built. The concept of physical elements did not change fundamentally for almost 2000 years.
Then, about 300 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton introduced the idea that all matter exists at points called particles. One hundred and fifty years later, James Clerk Maxwell introduced the electromagnetic wave – an underlying and often invisible form of magnetism, electricity and light.
The particle served as a building block for mechanics, and the wave for electromagnetism – and the audience settled on the particle and the wave as two building blocks of matter. Together, particles and waves have become the building blocks of all types of matter.
This was a significant improvement over the five elements of the ancient Greeks, but still imperfect. In a famous series of experiments known as the double slit experiments, light sometimes acts as a particle and sometimes as a wave. And while the theories and mathematics of waves and particles allow scientists to make incredibly accurate predictions about the universe, the rules are broken on the largest and smallest scales.
Einstein proposed a cure in his general theory of relativity. Using the mathematical tools available to him at the time, Einstein was able to better explain certain physical phenomena, as well as resolve the long-standing paradox of inertia and gravity.
But instead of improving particles or waves, he eliminated them by proposing the curvature of space and time.
Using new mathematical tools, a colleague and I demonstrated a new theory that can accurately describe the universe. Instead of basing a theory on the curvature of space and time, we believed that there could be a more fundamental building block than a particle and a wave.
Scientists understand that particles and waves are existential opposites: a particle is a source of matter that exists at one point, and waves exist everywhere except those points that create them.
My colleague and I thought that having a deep connection between the two made logical sense.
Energy flow and fragments.
Our theory starts with a new fundamental idea – that energy always “flows” through regions of space and time.
Imagine that energy is made up of lines filling a region of space and time, flowing into and out of that region, never starting, never ending, and never intersecting.
Based on the idea of a universe of flowing energy lines, we were looking for a single building block for flowing energy. If we could find and define such a thing, we hoped we could use it to accurately represent the universe at the largest and smallest scales.
There were many building blocks from which to choose mathematically, but we were looking for one that had the properties of both a particle and a wave – concentrated like a particle, but also propagated in space and time like a wave.
The answer to this question was a building block that looks like a concentration of energy – like a star – with maximum energy at the center and decreasing as you move away from the center.
Much to our surprise, we found that there are only a limited number of ways to describe the concentration of current energy. Of these, we found only one that works according to our mathematical definition of flow.
We called it a fragment of energy. For fans of mathematics and physics, it is defined as A = -⍺ / r, where ⍺ is the intensity and r is a function of distance.
Using a piece of energy as the building block of matter, we then built the mathematics needed to solve physics problems. The last step was to check it out.
Let’s go back to Einstein, adding versatility.
More than 100 years ago, Einstein turned to two legendary problems in physics to validate general relativity: a very slight annual displacement – or precession – of the orbit of Mercury, and a tiny curvature of light as it passes the sun.
These problems were at two extremes in the size spectrum. Neither wave nor corpuscular theories of matter could solve them, but general relativity did.
General relativity curved space and time in such a way that the trajectory of Mercury shifted, and light was curved exactly in those quantities that are observed in astronomical observations.
If our new theory had a chance to replace the particle and wave with a supposedly more fundamental piece, we could also solve these problems with our theory.
For the problem of the precession of Mercury, we modeled the Sun as a huge stationary chunk of energy, and Mercury as a smaller, but still huge, slowly moving chunk of energy. For the problem of bending light, the Sun was modeled in the same way, but the photon was modeled as a tiny piece of energy moving at the speed of light.
In both problems, we calculated the trajectories of the moving fragments and got the same answers as the predictions of general relativity. We were overwhelmed.
Our initial work demonstrated how the new building block can accurately model bodies from the largest to the smallest. Where particles and waves break down, a piece of the building block of energy remains solid.
A fragment may be the only potentially universal building block from which reality can be mathematically modeled – and renewed how people think about the building blocks of the universe.
Larry M. Silverberg, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, North Carolina State University.
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