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The general public seems to think matter is made of atoms. Have we forgotten that particle physics is only a model for the nature of matter?

Public Perception of the Nature of Matter

Particle physics describes matter in three (or four) dimensions, like the surface of a pond, but the nature of matter-energy that lies beneath the surface cannot be perceived by our three-dimensional senses. By wearing our particle-physics glasses, we hinder our exploration of alternative models to address such issues as dark matter, dark energy and quantum entanglement.

Everyone loves the Higgs boson - just another snooker ball - but the Higgs field - how did that work again? In fact how does a fridge magnet work? Whilst particle physics has brought us huge leaps in our understanding of how matter behaves, we have forgotten that this is only one of many models to explain the behavior and nature of matter and energy.

Public perception is that matter is made of subatomic particles called quarks and that this is a fact. Maybe some can remember that odd double-slit business in the museum of curiosities and others view quantum entanglement as science-fiction. Why? Because particle physics does not adequately explain them.

If matter and energy are not considered as isolated bodies or quanta, but as a single field (the Universe) with peaks and troughs, which we then perceive in our 3D existence, provides an instantly "visible" understanding of entanglement and suggests an alternative identity for dark matter other than particles.

And this too is only a model.

We are near the end of the 3D road in our exploration of matter and must begin to think in 4D, 5D, 10D..but how? I do not know of what new talents our neurobiology may find, but we are not going to grow another sensory organ any time soon. The best we can do is to develop new models and that means leaving our accelerators behind and going for a swim.

  • Mar 20 2014: Note that there is no real problem with stating that matter is made of atoms. This is fine as far as it goes. In other words to within a certain set of length and timescales the idea of an atom as the basis of reality works fine. In the very small - quantum phenomena take over or in the very fast - special relativity, in the very large - general relativity is needed. Most people do not know what quarks are but most people have a simple idea of what an atom is. This provides a good enough model for most unless they are scientists or engineers in an area where other models are needed. Remember all such ideas are models whether its quarks, quantum theory in general etc.
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    Mar 21 2014: Since sciences have been turned into some loud public sensation in our postmodern age, public's simplified interpretations keep thriving based on sound bytes of already twisted popularized "facts".

    At the same time from physics to neuroscience the most fantastic ideas are appearing and disappearing, just like short-lived butterflies... More and more scientific terms are getting invented - these are mainly based on some observations of quite obscure appearances in labs.

    But what is really crazy, in my opinion, is that no one seems to care WHY do we still trust our corporeal eyes and its "evidence" that cannot prove anything for sure, but only "delivers" extremely superficial appearances.

    As fantastic as it might look, sciences are still into proving the "facts" perceived by the most deceiving and ephemeral perception of all we may possess - our sight!

    There is some law of nature we conveniently avoid in our observations and calculations - the world we've observed an instant ago is already new and entirely changed so are we in it. (Heraclitus)

    We cannot see anything as it is out there - these are "things-in-themselves" (Protagoras and later I.Kant)

    All we can do so far is to remember well, that our explanations of our experience, scientific and mundane, collective and unique, logical or fantastic, reflect only doubtful human presumptions - not any sort of objective truth.

    Once in a while we are lucky when we can make practical sense of what we do in labs. However, as great W. Heisenberg pointed out - never allow industrialists to mass-produce "things" which nature we may not understand.
    • Mar 23 2014: Love your post. There is of course no solution to the existential / sensorial conundrum - we receive signals, we process signals, we interpret signals. And what is really inducing all of this is not knowable.

      We create models not to explain how energy and matter really look (in 10 or more dimensions) but to predict what will happen given a set of circumstances within our limited set of "detectors". And this is why I asked if we are not skewing our starting assumptions by assuming that, for example, particles must be involved. Physicists still talk about gravitons! Gimme a break and take of those rose-tinted particle glasses, guys.

      For me the best gravitational theory is that the nature of gravity requires several other dimensions (imagine magnets in some 5th to 7th dimensions). These dimensions and the gravity they exert in our dimensions shape space-time in 3D and are the source of dark matter. No particles needed.

      After this week's sensational results from the Dark Sector Lab we're now on the right track. All we need is a popular Brian Cox-type field theory physicist to make a BBC series, raise public interest and get governments to fund some decent gravity-wave detectors in space.
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        Mar 23 2014: What a picture you have so clearly described - actually a real game typical for our postmodern world. Those fantastic scientific ideas successfuly seduce public, therefore, the labs may get some grants and donations to continue their often silly projects.

        I'm sorry that along with some rare great research, our excited public and the government also support complete idiocy, some very dangerous and unethical in every way.

        It's a mind boggling problem of the 21st century - many scientists never study classical philosphy, psychology of their own human perceptions, or history of sciences. (In my science college that "scientific" arrogance, even among professors, drove me insane.) Thank you for your post, Ralph.

        P.S. Love the fact that when we believe, say, that the law of gravity is truly universal, we have to face the fact that it does not work the same way in deeper realities of "matter".

        I think that the world has no dimensions - our unique minds build dimensional realities based on our specific limitations of perceiving. Knowing that we can see only within our limitations it would be intelligent, in my modest opinion, to presume that we may be dealing with endelss dimensions, that are instantly new and transforming "driven" by constantly changing conditions of the world.

        What we understand as dimensions is our framed imaginative stage of our mind-created reality that can be conveniently "frozen" for our calculations and observations. First and foremest I think, our sciences are missing the very knowkedge of how our own minds Perceive what we call "reality out there" and why we are so limited.. This is the most fundamental, exciting but still unexplored field of knowledge of all we may ever enter in this existence.
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    Mar 19 2014: Well I for one don't think that the public's knowledge of physics is important. Physics is important where it counts, to those individuals that use it and those who're interested in it. Yes particle physics is only a model, but its the best we've got at the moment. Geniuses are currently working on their own versions of a Theory of Everything. Many think it's just a matter of marrying general relativity with quantum mechanics, or even just having a model for quantum gravity. Science is the search for the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so it shouldn't be swayed by public opinion.
  • Mar 24 2014: I think that scientists want the general public to think that scientists think that matter is made of atoms because they are scared of losing research grants.
  • Mar 20 2014: I think that the general public thinks that the scientists think that matter is made of atoms.
  • Mar 19 2014: Hi Ariel, Thanks for your post. I would argue that public perception of any science is very important, but that's another question.

    I was happy to read, "Yes particle physics is only a model" because it is rarely acknowledged and I believe through good marketing we have overly invested in the particle nature of matter (although we did get Brian Cox in compensation) and rarely test other manifestations - how many particle accelerators were built compared to "wave accelerators" or "field generators" and whatever Young would have built had he had the money?

    What if effects that we attribute to dark matter and dark energy can only be explained by considering the non-particle nature of matter (field theories, string theory or other multidimensional solutions)?

    "Science is the search for the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth" Ah, but which truth?
    The truth about matter is more complex than particles, as every physicist knows that these are only a manifestation we experience through our existence in three dimensions. The truth is that all matter and energy exists as a single universal continuum. In ten dimensions, at the last count.

    A pity that our experiences are only in 3D as I would love to see curved space and snap a photo inside a black hole.
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      Mar 20 2014: Hmmm, well to be fair science does need the budget that only the public could give so, touche. Yes truth seems to blur as we get deeper into science and the unknown in general because there is to few information for reliable verification. I believe this is the discussion by a recent book physics book that theoretical physics should even be called a science since its only based on very learned opinions called 'theories' or 'models'. Forgive my faulty memory, but I really can't recall at the moment. Point is, by truth I only meant what is categorically, undeniably, beyond reasonable doubt facts. Not theories, not models, maybe not even quantum entanglement because of a simple fact, we don't know much about it yet.
      • Mar 23 2014: But what is "really categorically, undeniably, beyond reasonable doubt" a fact? Facts are assumptions based on evidence in a defined system. OK, in day to day life we call certain expectations facts, as they are unlikely to change - like my coffee cup isn't going to fill itself and pigs will not fly.

        As Frank Bierbrauer said in his post, there is no problem stating that matter is made of atoms (the assumed fact) within a certain set of length and timescales, but this collapses at the quantum level. It could be said that we live with the acceptance of assumptions that we term facts, but these are only valid in the model we are discussing - be it quantum electrodynamics, particle physics or day-to-day life.
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          Mar 23 2014: Now we're falling into semantics. Of course we can never really verify what is actual 'fact' or 'truth'. There is no proof that would prove 'proof' to be true without certain assumptions. Godel made this clear. I also agree with this philosopher's view on 'truth'
          But this is moot and academic in terms of 'usefulness'. As long a bit of information has been reliably verified to be true, then in all intends and purposes to us, it is true. However, this is still a long way away from the prepositions or theories where much is still unknown and thus, we cannot still hold it as 'true'.