Apples and protons

So here's the deal.  This apple, the one we can't decide whether it's real or not, isn't just an apple.  It's a proton - or electron, or neutron, or really any particle of matter in the universe.

Most people imagine particles as little tiny marbles  - mainly because this is how they're presented in chemistry and physics classes.  That's the old model, though, and even the "new" model - developed with the rise of quantum physics - is becoming more and more suspect.

You see, just like our first apple, particles don't really exist.  They're not physically "there" with any exact properties we can determine.  Everything we know about them we know indirectly by how they interact with other matter (of course), but since we don't know that the other matter exists either, we're in a bit of a conundrum.

We do know that the idea of little marbles doesn't work for a variety of reasons.  Again, that's not new.  One basic flaw is with the electron, which doesn't exist like a moon orbiting a planet but more like a shell of potentiation around the nucleus (and no, there's not really a simpler way of saying it).  What we didn't know then that is rapidly being suspected now is that the nucleus is the same: a mass of potential rather than bunch of marbles stuck together.  When we "knock a neutron out", it's more like the properties of a neutron being separated out of the miasma rather than a billiard-ball action.

It gets "worse", though.  Even a separate, distinct free-floating particle like a neutron isn't "whole" - it's made up of smaller particles, or seems to be.  However, these particles - such as quarks - don't seem to be able to exist by themselves for any practical length of time.  So, whether they really exist independently or are merely the "shards" of an "exploding" particle, we don't know.

And then we get into the matter/energy conundrum: how can two things with no common physicality be interchangeable?  The answer, of course, is that they have to have some common physicality - some mechanism or particle or something - that is matter when grouped like this but energy when grouped like that.  Such is part of the search for the mystical Theory of Everything, which is looking to be more and more mythical as time goes on.

So, we don't know what anything is, we can't fundamentally describe anything, and we're not even sure we'll ever be able to.  Yet, matter exists (or seems to).  How?

This is our second apple - the average, the concept, or in physics terms, the superposition of the combined wave functions.  Detectable matter, to the best of our perception, only exists as an average - even on subatomic scales.  We can categorize things loosely, describe fuzzy margins with inherent leeway, but we can never state exactly what something is or isn't.  When we look for something, it seems to be there, but if we study its effects and and try to pinpoint it, we can't be sure.

Luckily, "fuzzy margins" are good enough to a lot of things - in fact for pretty much any applied science, such as engineering or nuclear physics.  However, the fuzziness places an accuracy limit on what we can know at this point.  Unless we can find some more fundamental principle that can eliminate the fuzziness, we're rapidly coming to a wall in our understanding of basic existence.

So, the next time you sit in a chair, try to understand that the only reason you don't fall to the floor is that the average of your existence can interact with the average of its existence.  And the next time you eat an apple, try to picture it as a superposition of potentials, not just a piece of ripe fruit.


NRF said...

Now, I understand.

NRF said...

However, this understanding doesn't seem able to exist by itself for any practical length of time. So, whether I really understand or am merely confused by the "shards" of my "exploding" brain, we don't know.

Austin said...

If there is no spoon, how do we eat soup?

Understanding is always tentative. Think of it this way: any theory is only correct until a better one comes along, so *all* theories are wrong. Does that mean there's no understanding at all?

david said...

is there any of the apple pie left?
that last piece i had with the ice cream was real good....

no spoon?
just pick up the bowl and slurp it up, duh.... :p

just sayin..

- cheers... david

Dean Grey said...


My eyes glazed over pretty quickly after reading this post!

I'll let you analyze the particles of apples for me while I sit back and eat them!

I sure feel dumb after reading your blog! Makes me wish I was smarter!