Matter is what makes up the universe, but what makes matter? This question has long been tricky for those who think it – especially for physicists. Reflecting the latest trends in physics, my colleague Jeffrey Eischen and I have described an updated way of thinking about the issue. We propose that matter not consist of particles or waves, as has long been thought, but – more fundamentally – that matter consist of fragments of energy.
From five to one
The ancient Greeks conceived of 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 seen from the pleasant point of the Earth. These were the first most basic elements from which one could build a world. Their conception of the physical elements did not change dramatically for nearly 2,000 years.
Then, about 300 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton introduced the idea that all matter exists in points called particles. One hundred and fifty years later, James Clerk Maxwell introduced the electromagnetic wave – the basic 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 public settled on particles and waves as the two building blocks of matter. Together, particles and waves became 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 flawed. In a famous series of experiments known as two-crack experiments, light sometimes acts as a particle and other times acts as a wave. And while the theories and mathematics of waves and particles allow scientists to make incredibly accurate predictions about the universe, the rules break down on the largest and smallest scales.
Einstein proposed a remedy in his theory of general relativity. Using the mathematical tools available to him at the time, Einstein was able to better explain some physical phenomena and also to solve a long paradox about inertia and gravity. But instead of improving particles or waves, he eliminated them while proposing the distortion of space and time.
Using newer mathematical tools, my colleague and I have demonstrated a new theory that can accurately describe the universe. Instead of basing the theory on the distortion of space and time, we considered that there might be a building block that is more fundamental than particles and waves. 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 logical sense to have a basic connection between them.
Flow and fragments of energy
Our theory begins with a fundamental new idea – that energy always “flows” through regions of space and time.
Think of energy as consisting of lines that fill a region of space and time, flowing in and out of that region, never beginning, never ending, and never crossing each other.
Working from the idea of a universe of flowing power lines, we sought a single building block for flowing energy. If we could find and define such a thing, we hoped to use it to make accurate predictions about the universe on the largest and smallest scales.
There were many building blocks to choose from mathematically, but we looked for one that had the properties of particles and waves – concentrated as particles, but also stretched in space and time like waves. The answer was a building block that looks like a concentration of energy – kind of like a star – that has energy that is higher in the center and smaller in the center.
To our surprise, we discovered that there were only a limited number of ways to describe a concentration of flowing energy. Of these, we found only one that works according to our mathematical definition of flow. We called it a fragment of energy. For math and physics enthusiasts, it is defined as A = -⍺ /r where ⍺ is the intensity and r is the function of distance.
Using the energy fragment as a building block of matter, we then constructed the mathematics needed to solve physics problems. The final step was to try it.
Return to Einstein, adding universality
More than 100 years ago, Einstein addressed two legendary problems in physics to prove general relativity: the annual displacement – or precession – always light – in Mercury’s orbit, and the slight curvature of light as it passes the Sun.
These problems were at both extremes of the size spectrum. Neither theories of waves nor particles of matter can solve them, but general relativity solved them. The theory of general relativity distorted space and time in such a way as to cause Mercury’s trajectory to shift and the light to bend exactly in the quantities seen in astronomical observations.
If our new theory were to have a chance to replace particle and wave with the seemingly more fundamental fragment, we would need to be able to solve these problems with our theory as well.
For the Mercury precession problem, we modeled the Sun as a stationary fragment of energy and Mercury as a smaller but still extraordinary fragment of slow energy. For the problem of light reflection, the Sun was modeled in the same way, but the photon was modeled as a small 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 stunned.
Our initial work demonstrated how a new building block is capable of accurately modeling bodies from large to small ones. Where particles and waves break, the fragment of the power building block was kept strong. The fragment can be a single potentially universal building block from which one can realistically model mathematically – and update the way people think about the building blocks of the universe.
Written by Larry M. Silverberg, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, North Carolina State University.