Matter is what makes up the universe, but what makes up matter? This question has long been a delicate one for those who think about it – especially for physicists. Reflecting recent trends in physics, my colleague Jeffrey Eischen and I described a new way of thinking about matter. We propose that matter is not made of particles or waves, as has long been thought, but – more fundamentally – that matter is made of fragments of energy.
zf L / Moment via Getty Images – The Conversation
From five to one
The ancient Greeks designed five building blocks of matter – from the bottom up: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. Ether was the matter that filled the heavens and explained the rotation of the stars, as observed from the point of view of the Earth. These were the first most basic elements from which to build a world. Their conceptions of the physical elements have not changed dramatically for nearly 2,000 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 – the underlying and often invisible form of magnetism, electricity, and light. The particle served as the building block for mechanics and the wave for electromagnetism – and the audience chose the particle and the wave as the two building blocks of matter. Together, particles and waves have become the building blocks of all kinds of matter.
This was a great improvement over the five elements of the ancient Greeks, but it was still imperfect. In a famous series of experiments, known as the double slit experiments, light sometimes acts like a particle and at other times like a wave. And while wave and particle theories and mathematics allow scientists to make incredibly accurate predictions about the universe, the rules are crumbling at scales large and small.
Einstein proposed a remedy in his theory of general relativity. Using the mathematical tools at his disposal at the time, Einstein was able to better explain certain physical phenomena and also resolve a long-standing paradox related to inertia and gravity. But instead of improving particles or waves, he eliminated them by proposing the deformation of space and time.
Using more recent mathematical tools, my colleague and I demonstrated a new theory that can accurately describe the universe. Instead of basing the theory on the deformation of space and time, we considered that there could be a more fundamental building block than the particle and the wave. Scientists understand that particles and waves are existential opposites: A particle is a source of matter that exists at a single point, and waves exist everywhere except at the points that create them. My colleague and I thought it made sense that there was an underlying connection between them.
Energy flows and fragments
Our theory begins with a new fundamental idea – that energy always “circulates” through regions of space and time.
Think of energy as being made up of lines that fill a region of space and time, moving in and out of that region, never starting, never ending, and never intersecting.
Starting from the idea of ââa universe of fluid energy lines, we sought a single building block for fluid energy. If we could find and define such a thing, we hoped that we could use it to make accurate predictions about the universe at larger and smaller scales.
There were many building blocks to choose from mathematically, but we looked for one that had both particle and wave characteristics – concentrated like the particle but also distributed in space and time like the wave. The answer was a building block that looks like a concentration of energy – much like a star – whose energy is highest at the center and which decreases as it moves away from the center.
To our surprise, we discovered that there were only a limited number of ways to describe a flowing concentration of energy. Of these, we only found one that works according to our mathematical definition of flow. We called it a fragment of energy. For math and physics aficionados it is defined as A = -âº /r where is the intensity and r is the distance function.
Using the fragment of energy as the building block of matter, we then built the mathematics needed to solve physics problems. The last step was to test it.
Back to Einstein, add universality
Over 100 years ago, Einstein turned to two legendary problems in physics to validate general relativity: the very slight annual shift – or precession – of Mercury’s orbit and the tiny curvature of light when it passes in front of the Sun.
These issues were at the two extremes of the size spectrum. Neither theories of waves nor of particles of matter could solve them, but general relativity did. The theory of general relativity has distorted space and time in such a way that Mercury’s path moves and light bends precisely in the amounts seen in astronomical observations.
If our new theory were to have a chance of replacing the particle and wave with the presumably more fundamental fragment, we should be able to solve these problems with our theory as well.
[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversationâs newsletter.]
For the problem of the precession of Mercury, we modeled the Sun as a huge stationary fragment of energy and Mercury as a smaller but still huge fragment of slow energy. For the problem of the curvature of light, the Sun was modeled in the same way, but the photon was modeled as a tiny fragment of energy moving at the speed of light. In both problems, we calculated the trajectories of the moving fragments and obtained the same answers as those predicted by the theory of general relativity. We were amazed.
Our initial work demonstrated how a new building block is able to accurately model bodies from huge to tiny. Where the particles and waves shatter, the energy building block shard has stood firm. The Shard could be a single, potentially universal building block from which to mathematically model reality – and update the way people think about the building blocks of the universe.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Larry M. Silverberg, North Carolina State University.
Larry M. Silverberg does not work, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond his academic position. .