Saturday, January 5, 2013

Why solid matter is solid

The current Radiolab podcast says:
It's comforting to think that if you take an object -- a rock, let's say -- and break it down into tinier and tinier more elemental parts, that that's exactly what you end up with: smaller and smaller particles until you reach the smallest. And voila! Those are the building blocks of everything around us.

But as Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist? points out... that's an old worldview that no longer jives with modern-day science. If you start slicing and sleuthing in subatomic particle land -- trying to get to the bottom of what makes matter -- you mostly find empty space. Your hand, your chair, the's all made up of mostly of nothing.
I say the old worldview is more accurate.

It is not true to say the modern-day science teaches that atoms are mostly empty space. First, there is no such thing as empty space, as modern physics teaches that it is filled with pervasive fields that used to be called the aether. Second, atoms are held together by nuclear and electromagnetic fields, and those fields fill up atoms and material objects.

Holt goes on to say that solid matter is solid because of the Pauli Exclusion Principle and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and not because of the electrical properties of electrons. This is only partially correct, and not a helpful explanation. For a more technical explanation, I suggest this review.

Holt's attitude seems to be that because we have mathematical descriptions of subatomic particles, matter is just ethereal math, and is not substantial. Physicists sometimes talk this way, so he is not just making it up. First, we have not reduced these atoms to pure math. Second, having mathematical approximations has nothing to do with matter being substantial.

Holt's book made the NY Times list of the 10 best books of 2012, and it was the only science book on the list. Maybe I should read his book to get his full story, as maybe he quotes prominent physicists for his goofy ideas.


  1. It's the same with mathematics where to get the equations to work they have now ended up with thirteen dimensions!

  2. I dont think there is anything wrong with saying it is mostly empty space. If everything in the universe was contained in a single infinitesimal point of energy then all of the universe particles cant amount to much.
    I think the lay man understands, or should understand, that when they try to put 2 +magnets together--there is a force there that feels solid. Of course there are invisible carriers involved but think you get the point.

    Im not defending these guys though..personally I think that most of the field is made up of utter fools who may be good at math but are terrible at reasoning. Highly arrogant, terribly misleading and thoroughly biased