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  1. May 9, 2006 #1
    Please forgive my non-math questions. I am 55 years old and I have been fascinated by QM and particle physics for the past 10 years. I have been an astronomy buff for most of my life so I started with some understanding of light and the atomic process but I only know basic math and statistics (or voodoo). But I thought maybe I could get some good information on this forum.

    I have read every non-math book on QM and particle physics as well as relativity and quantum gravity and anything dealing with those subjects that does not include much math. So forgive any stupid questions and if you can shed any light on questions I might ask in a non-math way, I would appreciate it. I know it wont be a complete understanding but as much as I wish I would have learned the math as a youth, there is no way I'm heading down that path now. Another of life's opportunities lost.

    My first question is one that I've heard debated only briefly but I've not heard any good arguments either way.

    Is matter made from nothing? If E=MC2 and energy is a potential, I can't see it or feel it, and since particles and even atoms exist as a probability until called upon, can we infer that matter is made from nothing but a mathematical probability? Ignore any string theory since the same question could apply to strings.

    Does it somehow make sense that the universe is formed from nothing, since if the raw materials for the universe existed before the universe, then a universe would have already existed. It seems logical if you are to have something where there was nothing, then it would follow that it would come from nothing. Which I suppose does happen in the case of virtual particles.

    Please, I'm not trying to get to any cosmic understanding of what's behind the universe, I'm just trying to get a physicists view on weather the building blocks of the universe are more than a mathematical concept.
    Last edited: May 9, 2006
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  3. May 9, 2006 #2


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    Hello and welcome to PF !

    The first point I would like to make is the following: it is very hard to try to get an understanding of physics without its natural language, which is mathematics. I would say that if you're serious about understanding physics, you've now read enough "pop" books, and it's time to start studying the thing seriously. What can sound totally mysterious in words can sometimes be extremely clear when you know mathematically what you're talking about. It's really worth it, you know, and after all, the maths aren't *that* hard.

    Metaphysical questions like "is matter made of nothing" are very hard to answer, for two reasons: first because it's difficult to understand the question, and next, because the answer (once we have translated the question) is probably unknown. Contrary to what popular books make you believe, in physics we don't know "the absolute truth about the nature of nature". We have different paradigms, which have experimental success, which go with a certain formalism, and a certain picture (usually called an interpretation) of what nature is like. *Within* such a paradigm, you can then translate your question, and according to the picture at hand, produce an answer, or come to the conclusion that the question is meaningless or unanswerable. But that is *within a paradigm*. Nothing says that this paradigm is *ultimately* correct. "There must be some truth in it" of course, because of its experimental success.

    The next trap is infinite regression in inquiring about fundamental entities. No theory can work without positing first some postulates. Inquiring about the nature of those postulates then automatically makes you leave said theory (and supposes you have an underlying theory). But this means that *other* postulates must be taken as fundamental. Etc... So this never stops !

    Some physicists got so tired of these metaphysical considerations that they just "shut up and calculate". That's a bit a hard position of course, because some reflexion about the basic ideas of our "most profound" theories is often very insightful, but one should always take this with a grain of salt.
  4. May 9, 2006 #3


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    Did you read Feynman's non math book on QM? "QED: The Strange Theory of Matter and Light".

    It's available for $16 on Amazon and it is easily the best of this sort of book.

  5. May 10, 2006 #4
    Hi DarylC, I'm your age and have been fascinated by QM and particle physics for the past 35 years. Like you, I started out as an astronomy buff.
    I'm afraid your question makes no sense. Can you define "matter" otherwise than as "that which everything is made of"?
    That's a conversion formula. E and m measure the same thing, E in energy units, m in mass units.
    By the following definition, this is horse****. But you are NOT to be blamed for it. It's the almost inevitable result of reading "every non-math book on QM and particle physics... that does not include much math."
    Bull**** is a rare and valuable commodity. The great masters have all been bull****ters. Horse****, on the other hand, in the common parlance, refers to downright crap. The free, playful entertaining flight of ideas is bull****; and more often than not will be found afterwards to accord perfectly with universal truth. Horse**** is contrived; derivative, superstitious, ignorant. (Art Kleps, "Sixth-Century Political Economy")​
    By the way, the stars are courtesy of physics forums.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 10, 2006
  6. May 10, 2006 #5
    Print this in bold, frame it, and hang it where you see it everyday, everyone.
  7. May 10, 2006 #6
    IMO, there is an even better book: The Quantum Challenge by George Greenstein and Arthur G. Zajonc. It even contains all the maths you need, which is indeed not all that hard.
  8. May 10, 2006 #7
    I realize as a lay person I probably am not coming off in my best light. I feel the same thing when people ask me about astronomy or music.

    I guess what I was trying to get was a feel for what more experienced folks "think" about the fundamental nature of matter.

    I realize there is no concrete answer here. We have changed our "models" of the atom from "billiard balls" to "fuzziness" and I realize that our approximations of what atoms are is little more than analogies that describe something that would seem to behave as an atom might.

    But does the understanding of a mathematical description of an atom lead to a "suspicion" of the fundamental nature. I'm not trying to undermine the science here and I realize that if I live to be 500 my "knowledge" of matter will probably be no greater than it is now.

    But I get the impression that matter is tenuous at best and perhaps less than that. I understand that is "unscientific", but regardless of how astute we are in our scientific process, we are all human and we all have our little suspicions.

    Is there anything in the math or at a higher level that would favor elementary "particles" or can matter really be a "perspective" of something without a physical property?

    I'm not into mysticism or trying to relate QM to "the life force of the universe", I'm a little more knowledgeable than that.

    But I have a hard time accepting that matter is made from a "fundamental material", which makes me think that at the root of it all, there is nothing that we would associate with a material property.

    I have read some of the books suggested. I really have read a lot more than just the beginners books on these things. I would really like any more suggestions that might help me seek an understanding.

    I must confess though, that unlike many of the hard scientific persuasion, I do not abhor philosophy. I think philosophy should lead science. Science should sort the chaff from the wheat of philosophy. But without philosophy where would would get the questions that science seeks to answer? Philosophy also has a history of being right sometimes. However I do not subscribe to any religion, so please don't accuse me of that.

    Thanks for your insight, I wish my school had taught me the wonders of science when I was kid.


    I'm a bit a rebel, as some of my astronomy friends will tell you. I don't buy the existence of "dark matter". It's kind of like Bigfoot - show me one.
    Last edited: May 10, 2006
  9. May 10, 2006 #8


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    Hi DarylC...

    First, I would like to echo both vanesch's comment and koantum's reference to it regarding theory. It's that important. Also, consider that a good theory is one that is useful. A theory which makes no useful or testable predictions, or otherwise gives us nothing more than what we had before, is not much of a theory.

    What you are referring to in your questions is what is often called "interpretations". I.e. interpretations of physics or quantum physics. Please note that the key thing that changes from one interpretation to another is NOT the predictions or the math. That usually stays the same by design. Instead, what changes is the model or mental picture. Sometimes there are deep theoretical differences, but they are not visible because there is no way to distinguish between theories with experimental probing.

    There is a lot of debate as to whether the interpretation matters at all. Some feel that a good interpretation will lead to better theory development in the future. But no one can be sure about that, and so the debate rages. Those that take the "shut up and calculate" path are essentially saying that the interpretation is not as important as the formal underlying mathematical structure.
  10. May 11, 2006 #9
    If by "more experienced folks" you mean physicists, they don’t think about the fundamental nature of matter, at least not in their capacity as physicists. Note that the mathematical formalism of contemporary physics has no symbol form "matter". Physicists don’t talk about matter. They talk about correlations between measurement outcomes in a more or less inadequate language. They talk about energy, momentum, spin, and such, which are features of the quantum-mechanical probability algorithms, and they think about them in more or less classical ways, which is why I described their language as "more or less inadequate". The "fundamental nature of matter" is a purely philosophical question, and pretty ill-defined at that. (Before I can tell you what is the fundamental nature of X, you must tell me what you mean by X.)
    The trouble is that everyone seems to suspect something else. And fundamental nature of what? Matter is what the materialists think that everything is, mind is what the idealists think that everything is, nothing is what the nihilists think that everything is, Brahman is what most Indian classical philosophers think that everything is, Tao is what the taoists think that everything is... You get my drift.
    What do you mean by a "higher level"? For most physicists the math is the highest level. What do you mean by a "particle"? What do you mean by a "physical property"?
    If you want my private personal opinion, I quite agree with you, but as you have seen, this raises a lot of other questions.
    A visit to my website might help.
    Vain hope. Tegmark remarked that "most of my colleagues are terrified of talking to philosophers-like being caught coming out of a pornographic cinema." And while Wigner spoke of the unreasonable effectiveness of maths in the natural sciences, Weinberg speaks of the unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy in the natural sciences.
  11. May 11, 2006 #10
    Thanks guys. Not being a physicist I really don't understand the "shut up and calculate" mindset. If we can't be in awe at what we find, then what's the point? If we can't imagine where it might lead us, then why follow?

    Bohr referred to "meaningless questions", but how can any question about the unknown be meaningless just because we can't understand it? As a species we have learned an incredible amount about the universe we live in, yet I suspicion that there is a great deal more we don't know. (Obviously being facetious here.) It seems in little arrogant that because we can't know something, that it is irrelevant.

    Koantum - Thanks for being honest and sharing your suspicion. I loved the quote "most of my colleagues are terrified of talking to philosophers-like being caught coming out of a pornographic cinema." but I suspect beneath the facade of nearly every hard core scientist he subscribes to his own suspicions about the nature of "our view" of the universe. In my mind there is nothing wrong with that, otherwise we would all be doing the same experiments finding the same answers, to the same simple questions. A large part of the pursuit of knowledge is asking the right questions, and not being afraid of finding out you're wrong.

    In all probability we will never know the whole truth about the fundamental nature of the universe, there may be no GUT, no strings, and QM may be the manifestation of a puzzle in which we only have a few of the pieces and therefor no hope of seeing the whole picture. I suspect that if the final truth were laid out before us, we probably couldn't understand it. In astronomy we look to understand that which we have no hope of ever knowing. I doubt humans will ever leave the solar system, and yet we seek planets around distant stars in the attempt to know a piece of the unknowable, but I feel it is to our credit as a race that we to continue to try.

  12. May 11, 2006 #11


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    Most of us are in awe with the result itself without having to put any philosophical context to it. I am in awe when I see signs of electron "fractionalization" in 1D conductors where the charge and spin go their own separate ways. I am in awe when I see detection of neutrino oscillation that solved a long-standing problem with the missing solar neutrinos. I am in awe when I see results from STM imaging that can map the location of single atoms, etc...

    There is no need at all, when one understands the intricate detail of the physics of these phenomena, to put any spin to any of these to make them interesting and important. The formalism that are the basis for many of these phonemana speaks for itself without having the need to ponder philosophical implications that may or may not be meaningful.

    I think that, as a physicist, I find it highly insulting that the formalism and the physics cannot stand by itself and be sold for what it is, without having the need to dress it up into something it may or may not be.

  13. May 11, 2006 #12
    ZapperZ - Certainly there is no need to ascribe "cosmic significance" to anything (although that can be fun), my point is that at some point there is no harm in exploring suspicions, and certainly no shame in having them.

    I think its best when math confirms a suspicion as opposed to ascribing an "unknowable reality" to a math puzzle. For example, I have a hard time getting excited about string theory because we can't test it. It is a theory born almost solely from math and while it may be an accurate tool in modeling, you have to assign untestable multiple dimensions. Some scientific minds can jump right into that and buy the whole shebang, but somehow thinking about the fundamental nature of reality is "bogus fantasy". I'm not saying string theory is wrong (how the heck would I know), but it's certainly would rank pretty high on the fantastic scale.

    It's kind of like the pursuit of the GUT. There is no reason it "has" to exist, many just suspicion it should, because it would "be so cool". But maybe there is no GUT. We only think that QM and Newtonian physics should be part of "a beautiful interconnected whole". But that smacks of philosophy, maybe the universe has no problem with its various parts un-uniformly clicking together. (Personally I too think there should be a GUT, but that is just my philosophy.)

    In astronomy the majority rant on about the effects of "dark matter" with absolutely no proof that it exists. It's 80% of the universe but we can't see it, we can't touch it, but because they desperately want their cosmological theories to hold up, they cling to dark matter. Woe be unto you if you suggest that maybe something else is going on, no room for that kind of thought in the scientific process.

    When you have a large number of prominent physicist giving credence to multiple and parallel universes, something which should be more unknowable that QM, and dark matter, I would say imagination is already rampant in the scientific community. I'm not saying that any of this is wrong but we are curious race and our imagination is not a small part of our success.
    Last edited: May 11, 2006
  14. May 11, 2006 #13


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    I didn't say there's any "harm" to exploring something casually. However, when you claim that "philosophy should lead science", this is no longer "exploring", but rather a demand that science must be subservient to a greater "cause". I highly disagree with this, because most physicists do not care about what is going on in philosophy, nor are they guided by them. Yet look at what they have accomplished. No philosopher gave any hints of "emergent phenomena" or spin-charge separation, or for that matter, quantum mechanics till these were discovered. So from my point of view, it is science that have been leading philosophy into territories that it couldn't even think of.

    There is a difference between exploring something scientifically, and exploring something philosophically. It appears that you are doing the latter, not the former. Those of us who work in the field are employed because we are asked to do the former. That is the nature of our jobs! We are not employed to verify things that are already known to work.

    And this is where the irony comes in. If you did watch that over-advertized Elegant Universe TV show, you'd notice that a few times, it was mentioned that unless String Theory can make empirical predictions that can be measured, it isn't physics, it is philosophy! So now go back to what you said about philosophy being the guide, etc... and see if you can reconcil with what you said here.

    I am not a fan of String Theory, not because of the formalism, but rather the rabid foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasm of people going into it without even the slightest concern that what they've done for such a long time is devoid of such evidence that it is even on the right path. AND, on top of that, the GALL to sell it to the public as the next best thing since sliced bread!

    Is the pursuit of some from of GUT really philosophical, or simply based on seeing a pattern? When you see a pattern of numbers, and then deduce that there must be a pattern somewhere else, were you using some philosophical guidance, or simply a matter of rational logic?

    People seem to forget that we see hints of some sort of a pattern in Nature itself. We see electric and magnetic field phenomena having some form of unification. We see many things that appear to look different that are actually the same thing. It is nothing more than pattern recognition! Thus, it is nature to think that maybe these different forces might have a common origin, especially when we put that in the scenario of the Big Bang. There are no guiding philosophy here.

    You are missing a lot of information here. If here are no indications that there are dark matter, how in the world was it introduced in the first place? As a joke? You may want to consider carefully how many things are "detected", even what you think you are seeing with your own eyes. You also need to keep in mind that these are research front area in which things continue to evolve and be discovered. You cannot simply draw a conclusion while the story is still being told! Observatories are being built or being planned to study these things. The LHC at CERN will also be looking into such things. It is not a matured field of knowledge that allows any sane person to already write it off.

    Can you give me the actual number of this "large number of prominent physicist"? I would like to compare this as a percentage of practicing physicists in the world. Based on my unscientific experience, most physicists that I meet couldn't care less about "parallel universe". Don't believe me? Attend one of the APS March Meeting, which is THE largest single annual conference for physics each year. Try to find even a topic on "parallel universe" in the program.

  15. May 11, 2006 #14
    Quantum Mechanics: the dreams that stuff is made of. — Unknown

    Exquisite poetry, Daryl, and as true as only poetry can be. But don’t be too hard on the physicists. Their work is highly demanding, either technically or mathematically, and their field highly competitive. They don’t get tenure for philosophical soundness or metaphysical profundity. And as ZapperZ rightly points out, the field has its own rewards. There aren't that many people who greatly care for the larger picture, and why should they. Remember Einstein' saying,
    Of all the communities available to us there is not one I would want to devote myself to except for the society of the true searchers, which has very few living members at any time.​
    Bohr's understanding of quantum mechanics was greater than anyone's for a long time. Trouble is, you need to take some trouble to figure him out. What he is saying has nothing to do with lack of understanding. On the contrary, it arises from new and unexpected insights. Meaningless questions are those that have no answers, and one of the most important and ineluctable implications of quantum mechanics is that there are indeed such questions. Meaningless questions arise from wrong presuppositions. There is much to be learned from the fact that certain questions we thought perfectly meaningful are in fact meaningless, and that certain long cherished presuppositions turn out false. Personally I have experienced a considerable sense of elation every time I realized that something I took for granted was plain wrong.
    ...yet! Don't forget evolution, and don’t imagine for a moment that we are the best Nature can produce.
    Viewing us as the culmination of anything is grotesque; viewing us as a transitional species makes more sense. -- Betty McCollister, "Our Transitional Species"​
    In a congressional hearing, when asked how particle physics contributes to the defense of our country, Robert Wilson replied that it may not contribute to the defence of the country but it certainly makes the country more worth defending. :wink:
  16. May 11, 2006 #15
    Certainly I have been overgeneralizing. I don't mean to imply that science should be subservient to philosophy, but I think it should be used to separate the chaff from the wheat as I said. I don't think it necessarily healthy to give no credence to philosophy. Of course by the word philosophy I mean imagination, suspicions, hunch, as opposed to any particular formalized philosophy.

    As I said I too think that a GUT would fit very nicely into our observations, but again we could be striving for something that does not exist, or we are missing way too many pieces of the puzzle. We not only suspicion a GUT because of the symmetry we see in nature, we also desperately WANT it to be so.

    Dark matter is much akin to Einstein's' aether. It's plugged into the existing theories that we so desperately want to be true. They can only be true if there is this much larger universe that we can't see, so we plod ahead accepting that for which there is no direct evidence. Conflicting theories are not well tolerated because they invalidate at lot of work that people have already done, IF they should prove to be true. But yet we have "imagined" the universe as 80 percent larger than we have any evidence for. It may exist, but it's an awfully big fudge factor that is accepted only because if it is there, then existing theories make sense. But we have no smoking gun.

    Certainly there are physicists that buy into multiple parallel universes. I may have overreached when I said "many". I don't have a problem with them imagining multiple / parallel universe. I just have a problem with accepting that but Pooh poohing a different philosophy as fantastic while clinging to parallel worlds.
  17. May 11, 2006 #16
    koantum - Good response, at least I think you see where I'm coming from.

    I didn't mean for this post to get off on a tangent. But I have a few questions that I would like to get a scientific perspective on. Certainly the nature of matter is a pretty broad topic. I'm sure I will ask some dumb questions in the future, but I will try to be a little more specific. Thanks.
  18. May 11, 2006 #17


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    Take note that the existence of the neutrino was a "fudge factor" in beta decay. Planck's "quanta" was a fudge factor in fitting the blackbody radiation.

    I can go on and on and on.... What you have a problem with is phenomenology, a very useful part of physics. If you look carefully, MANY of the things we know of today started out as nothing more than pure phenomenology. You just happened to be living at the beginning of one.

  19. May 11, 2006 #18
    ZapperZ - That's exactly what I'm getting at. We have the remarkable ability to often "imagine" things that turn out to be true. I support the investigation of such "imagination" or suspicion wholeheartedly.

    I just don't happen to buy dark matter when I think there are other and simpler alternatives, but I'm accused of being too imaginative - dark matter must exist. Maybe it does, but I can also imagine that it does not.
  20. May 11, 2006 #19


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    But imagination without knowledge is just ignorance waiting to happen. These people who came up with the concept of dark matter didn't "imagine" it. If they did, they would not have needed the impetus of experimental data to kick it into gear. No, these were not "imagined". It was introduced, at least for now, as the explanation for the observation. Now whether it will say like it is is an entirely different matter. It is why this continues to be studied. But you simply cannot dismiss it the way you did without resorting to something more substantial. You cannot bring something into existence via an unjustified guess, and you certainly cannot debunk something that way either.

    Then publish your alternatives and let it get scrutinize the same way the dark matter concept is being tested and scrutinize. It is the ONLY way to get something to be considered seriously.

  21. May 11, 2006 #20


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    In fact, personally, I'm quite philosophically minded, and (as some know here) indeed, just as you say, I find it a bit of a waste to learn all those formal things without thinking philosophically about it. Now, it is true that within the physicists community there is some kind of (misplaced IMO) aversion to philosophy. There is a kind of "macho" culture which wants you to "calculate heavy and measure hard", if you want to be a real man (woman) and not a quiche eater. Maybe this comes about because so many times, people told physicists that from a philosophical PoV, things ought to be like this or like that, and that it turned out not to be so, that there is now a deep mistrust in all things philosophical.

    So yes, I have my own, rather philosophical, view on things, which corresponds to some, and is radically oposed to other "conventional" ideas. I will reasssure the crowd that I'm not going to expose again my ideas on MWI and consciousness (even though koantum pushes through HIS views :-) My starting point is, however, that we should take the mathematics of the theory we have, as seriously as we can, and that we have to "weave a story" around it which is consistent (even if it is strange) - knowing that the story is not worth more than the formalism from which it derives, and that the day that the formalism changes, the story goes with it. Other people have different starting points.
    The main utility of such a story, IMO, apart from an ease of mind, is the devellopment of a mental picture and an intuition for the matter at hand, against which one can "check" its calculations and approximations.

    Maybe another reason is that physicists prefer to discuss things on which they can agree (like calculations and measurements), and not loose themselves in things which are always for a part, matter of opinion.

    EXACTLY. I think it is a vain hope to claim that "what we know now" or "what we will soon know" is ultimately true. This by itself is a philosophical statement of course. And I think that it is important to keep this in mind: that at ANY point of our knowledge (500 years ago, 500 years in the future) we will always just know some pieces of the puzzle. We will always have the impression that our ancestors were misguided, but that "we" are right, this time.

    Well, I wouldn't dare to say that. Go back 1000 years, and try to think up of things that people would have said of: "this, humans will never do".
    (flying, building computers, landing on the moon, ...)

    However, it is my opinion that one has to live one's (scientific) life in the epoch one is living. It is what I think string and other theorists are making a mistake about. Within the framework of the pieces of puzzle we know about, there is still a lot to discover. There's still a lot to verify experimentally. Maybe we're in for surprises. No need to day-dream about experiments we might be able to do 300 years from now. That's like trying to do quantum field theory of elementary particles in the 17th century, and predict the Z0 back then. Lost effort.
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