Matter is just empty space

New findings tell us we’re all just fluctuating vacuums. This changes the notion of calling someone an airhead.

On 20 November, 2008, New Scientist reported on work being done with a new approach to modelling quantum effects called Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (or just Lattice QCD). As a result, they’ve been able to more accurately model some of the observed properties of elementary particles, like protons.

The article raised some points that I found interesting.

1. Science Rules!
Work like this strengthens my belief that science is the winning paradigm. I see science as a process of constantly pushing back the boundaries that separate irrational, dogmatic, and religious thinking, and replacing it with a more consistent and realistic way to understand everything. Even 10 years ago, this kind of work would have been considered little more than science fiction, but now it’s the best way we have to describe the universe (including us). I love the notion of seeing what will happen in the next 10 years.

2. Maybe I was right!
I have this vivid memory of reading through the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Yearbook of Science and the Future when I was a teenager – well, younger than 22 certainly (since I was still living with my parents then, and I didn’t move out till I was 22). The memory is of reading about the Planck Length, a distance thought to be the smallest distance that has any meaning, and is calculated entirely from other physical constants. (There are other Planck units for mass, time, etc.) Back then, these were just weird values that, scientists thought, might have special physical meaning. I remember thinking how it rather made sense that space could be discrete and not continuous as we all assumed. We could only exist at the vertices of some universal grid and only move between gridpoints. This resolves Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion, which assume continuous space. It also suggested all kinds of crazy ideas for travelling faster than light – hey, I’m a geek, remember? Anyways, at the time, the kind of work reported in New Scientist was a physicist’s wet dream. But I’d thought of it.

3. The language of science is a problem.
In the comments at the end of the New Scientist article, there are some troubling themes. The first comment question’s the use of the term “confirmed” in describing the state of affairs in physics. The problem is that confirmation can mean a variety of things. Check the dictionary. It can mean the establishment of a truth, or just reinforce or support a statement or position. It is only in this latter sense that scientists use the word. They know that they can’t ever know anything with absolute certainty. All they can do is increase their confidence in a “fact” to the point that it is unreasonable to think of an alternative. But when such language gets out into the common folk, all manner of trouble can start. It’s the same problem that researchers in evolution face in calling it the “theory of evolution.” All kinds of ignorant putzes with political agendas love to argue “evolution is just a theory – so it might be wrong!” Again, science has a language that is quite precise, and the common folk don’t use words the same way. Science’s greatest problem, these days, is that of communicating their results meaningfully to the rest of the world. There’s so much good stuff in science; but it’s not getting interpreted correctly by the public exactly because the scientists aren’t looking for ways to address the differences in how they speak and write, and how those words come to have meaning for non-scientists. Perhaps one of the greatest design problems of our time is to devise a way for scientists to communicate well with the public.

4. Too many people don’t understand enough about science.
Read the comments in the New Scientist article. If you have any kind of science or engineering background, you’ll probably get depressed thinking about how vapid some of the commenters must be. Several commenters express weird emotions (depression, anger) at the thought of matter not really existing – that it’s all just energy. Well, DUH! We’ve known that ever since Einstein discovered that E=mc2! Indeed, it’s not that matter is just energy, or vice versa – it’s that matter and energy are the same thing! You can no more say matter doesn’t exist as you could say energy doesn’t exist. Then there’s the guy who thinks matter is “frozen energy” or the guy who thinks elementary particles are “spinning disks.” These are all just models, people. All we have are models. Everything we see and are conscious of is just a model of something else that we can’t experience directly. It’s reading stuff like this that makes me wonder how the heck humanity ever managed to survive.

On the other hand, we’re still here. So we must be doing something right. But seriously, we need to start listening more closely to the intellectuals – they’re the ones who have the best understanding of how things really are. And the intellectuals need to learn to speak and write in ways that more people will understand. Or the gap between these groups will just continue to grow. And that won’t be good for anyone.

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