IV. THE STUFF THE WORLD IS MADE OF:

MATTER

Such stuff the world is made of.

- WILLIAM COWPER

   We recognize the world primarily through tangible matter. We see things,  touch things,  taste things, and smell things: all  this constitutes much of perceived reality. This seems to be largely a material universe, consisting of a whole range of material entities, from tiny particles of dust and sand  to large planets, massive stars and stupendous galaxies. Matter does seem to be the stuff the universe is made of.

     The definition of matter is no easy matter. For our purposes, matter is simply that tangible something whose existence (as a component of perceived reality) can be felt, experienced, or established directly or in indirect ways. Matter requires some space - a tiny-tiny region ever so slightly larger than a geometrical point or a larger volume,  for  at our level at least,  all matter has extension.

     Ordinarily, we find matter in one of three states.  Some materials are solid as rock, others like water and oil are free-flowing liquids, yet others are tenuous as air or hydrogen. There is also a fourth state of matter, called plasma, to which all matter is transformed when raised to incredibly large temperatures. Plasma is not as common here on earth, but, surprise, surprise, much of the matter in the material universe is in the plasma state, for that is how matter is in the inner core of hot bright stars: stars pass much of their radiant life at enormously high temperatures.

     The material universe is more empty than filled, which means that the universe happens to be material only here and there in the vastness of its sweeping expanse.  In fact, the density of matter in the universe is a paltry 3 x 10-32 kilograms per cubic centimeter. To an outside observer - if ever there is one - the universe would be one vast wasteful void,  with sprinklings of matter here and there,  somewhat like a dozen humans trekking alone here and there on all of an earth's otherwise bleak surface.  In truth, this is not a material universe at all, but a radiant one, for its entire span is perpetually bathed in vibrant radiation. Calling this a material  universe is like calling the oceans naval simply because there are ships floating around here and there.

      But it was not always so. In the beginning, according to the Book of Genesis of current cosmologists, its density was a fantastic and incomprehensible 1090 kilograms per cubic centimeter.

     Though the material components of the universe occupy but a minuscule region compared to its totality, they are interesting in their marvelous properties and variety, and important too since without them there would be no universe to speak of. The few droplets of matter strewn in the vast stretches of space are what give body and identity to the physical universe.

     In our own field of everyday  experience, it is matter, matter everywhere. Our  earth  is, quantitatively speaking, an insignificant material speck in a universe much of whose matter is concentrated is countless stars of unimaginably larger dimensions which are considerably more mass-packed.

     Matter  is the most striking feature of perceived reality. It is all around us, on us, and within us too. Bereft of matter, we and the world would degenerate into insubstantial and unimaginable nothingness: a metaphysical thought with no physical correspondence.

Variety of matter

                   Metabolh pantan gluku:

                   Variety is sweet in all things.

-EURIPEDES

     As we look around the world replete with matter we find an abundant variety of it. There is sand and stone, water and wood, mud and mica, and much more. As if nature has not done a sufficient job, human ingenuity has concocted more kinds of matter: from pliable plastics and deadly dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane to countless other substances in   laboratories and factories.  We continue to synthesize materials every waking day:  to relieve pain, to cure ailments, to make better floors, to satisfy a thousand other need and greed.

     No matter, no world no doubt; but could not the world have been made with just one kind of matter? Perhaps, but it is not, and if it were, how dreadfully boring it would be! We believe initially the world  had matter of one kind only : hydrogen to be exact, but soon other substances were formed from it. How this happened is more thrilling than the dénouement in any detective  story, but we shall talk about it later. Thank God (or whoever or whatever made all this happen), there is  an endless variety of matter in our world, a staggering assortment of things that make  terra nostra  such as it is, for they add immeasurable charm and beauty to perceived reality.

     Every different manifestation of matter behaves differently, or as one is wont to say in science texts,  has its own unique properties. These properties could  sometimes change under changing conditions. Thus the same substance is solid ice, liquid water, or tenuous vapor, depending on its temperature. Materials may be hard or soft, rough or smooth, light or heavy, conducting or not conducting of heat, green or red or of some other color, and on and on one can go in their description. These are some of their physical  properties.

     And then there is also richness in the range of the chemical  properties of substances: how they burn and transform, how they store up or spill out energy in the process, how they combine with other materials or remain aloof, and so on.  These too have been studied and listed in countless volumes.  The ability and propensity of matter for chemical change is what keeps our nook in the universe picturesque, panoramic, and throbbing with life. If the planet's conditions inhibited chemical transformation, everything would be frozen stiff in a permanence that would endure for ever maybe, but it would all be inert and unchanging, dismal  as in the silent darkness of distant Pluto which is a lifeless dungeon as far as we can reckon.

Elements and compounds   

          I must not look upon any body as a true principle or element,

          but as yet compounded, which is not perfectly homogeneous,

          but is further  reducible into any number of distinct substances,

          how small soever.

- ROBERT BOYLE

     The universe is a complex arising from simplicity. For though at the experiential level we are struck by the variety and splendor in all the matter around us, as we  penetrate into the deep recesses of  the material world, we begin to discern surprising simplicity. It is not a barren simplicity, however, but a marvelous one, rich in consequences, fruitful in expressions.

     The ancients had a sneaking suspicion that this was so, for many old cultures imagined primary elements from which the material world arose. Perhaps the earliest record we have of the universe evolving from some primordial stuff is in the Vedas of the Hindus where one uses the notion of sat (pure being or essence) as having given rise to the world. There was a man by the name of Uddalaka Aruni who not only hypothesized that  from a primordial principle there arose a creative energy (tejas) from which came water and food. Water gave rise to life and food to the mind, he went on to say and also prove also. Thales of Miletus thought similarly that everything came from water.

     Recognizing the three states of matter as seen in land, sea, and air,  the ancients  were prompted to consider  earth, water, and air  as the primary substances out of which everything emerged. Realizing the importance of heat for life and activity, they added fire  to the list. Wondering at the apparently boundless expanse high above, some included the sky  (or space) to the basic blocks making up our world.

     It has been a long and searching route, the gradual recognition of the chemical basis of ordinary matter, known to most people today. We talk with ease about oxygen and helium, of H2O and CO2, but even two hundred and fifty years ago - a wink in the history of the human race - people knew nothing of them. Only painstaking experiments, critical analyses, and honest efforts at explaining things in logically consistent modes enabled us to become aware of the underlying essence in the variety of things.

     Thanks to the work and insights of countless investigators like Boyle and Lavoisier,  we now know that beneath all the colorful multiplicity of things which number in the millions, there are barely less than a hundred simple substances.  We call them elements, borrowing from ancient terminology. 

     The first list of elements, such as we understand the term today, was published by Lavoisier in 1789: the year of the French Revolution which beheaded the founder of modern chemistry. Lavoisier's original list had a mere thirty three of them, and it began with light and heat. It included such commonly known metals  as copper,  tin, and gold; the gases oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen; as well as mercury, sulfur and carbon. But others have carried the work thus launched, and we have since then become aware of a multitude more, bearing such exotic names as osmium and lanthanum, selenium and rubidium. Not only have we come to know of their existence, we have studied and exploited their properties too.

     Probing deeper into the structure and behavior of matter, we have also been able to concoct new elements: that is to say, elements that did not, because they could not,  last for long in the physical world. These are the so-called trans-uranic elements, and we have brought into being more than a score of them.

     These basic elements embrace one another in  myriad modes to produce all the wondrous substances in the material world. Every piece of matter has one or more of the basic elements, separately or in combinations. Materials which result from the combining of different elements are called compounds. Chemists are familiar with  literally millions of compounds.

     In the presence of a piece of matter, we rarely pause to consider what it  is ultimately made up of. We do not think of water as being made up oxygen and hydrogen, or of sugar as a combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Nor does red ruby remind us of aluminum and chromium any more than emerald of beryllium and silicon, or  diamond of carbon pure. But the splendid spectrum of color and smell, of taste and softness, is all the result of varying affiliations of various elements, often chemically combined. How the mixing of materials results in limitless variety!

     As material entities we humans are  constrained by physical laws, we are puny in front of Nature's majesty, flimsy  in comparison to her stupendous power. Yet, in spirit and intelligence, it would seem that  we sometimes accomplish more, such as creating substances that never existed before. In a way, this is only an impression, for  we ourselves are the products of Nature, and all that is happening is that we serve as Nature's conscious instruments in the fabrication of even more wonders in the world at large.

The structure of matter

                   Seeing the root of the matter is found in me.

- THE BOOK OF JOB

   What then is matter? Let us take any small chunk of any substance and do a Gedankenexperiment with it. Let us suppose we break it into two bits and break the smaller one again, and repeat the process again and again. In practice this would soon become impossible because the little bits would be reduced to invisible specks, beyond the harsh slicing of our instrument, but in our minds we can carry on the process for as long as we please.

     Or can we?  The question is significant because on its answer will depend how we believe all matter to be. Ancient thinkers gave considerable thought to it and they split up into two schools. There were those who imagined one can go on and on, subdividing indefinitely any material substance, even as one can, in principle, keep chopping a geometrical  till time runs out. Then there were  others who asserted we would be forced to come an ultimate unbreakable unit with any piece of matter. So we had the plenists and the atomists of by-gone  ages.  

     The question, like all others pertaining to the nature of perceived reality, cannot be decided by speculation alone. Centuries of experimentation, after millennia of debates,  have settled for us the answer. Every substance, such as we know it, has an ultimate integral unit in which it preserves its identity. So, in a sense, the atomists have won. But this complete component brick  of any matter is not exactly unbreakable. It can be further cleaved, but if this is done, it loses its identity. Perhaps we may make an analogy with a mound of ants which can ultimately be analyzed into so many identical ants. But if you chop down one of them, it ceases to be an ant any longer.

     The atoms themselves are not very close to one another, but separated by distances significant in relation to their size. Whether in solids or in liquids, and   even more so in gases, the constituent atoms never touch one another like people in a crowded subway or sardines in a can. Rather, they are more like trees in an orchard or fish at sea, close sometimes, or far, but never in direct contact.

     So, this perceived reality of gross matter, continuous to all appearances, is in truth an agglomeration of minute entities, like sand grains on a beach, but far too small to be discerned as such. Who would have expected that underneath the softness of silky surfaces and the smooth flow of  fluids there lurks a granular structure. It is as if a myriad non-touching pebbles formed together a compact whole, their coarseness camouflaged by a deceptive continuity. The illusion arises because of the dimensional scale. Our own perceptions are at a far too enlarged level, the minute discontinuities are way beyond our perceptual recognition.

     This is the revelation of current physics, in this is the recognition of another  root of perceived reality.

The structure of atoms

                   Atom from atom yawns as far

                   As moon from earth, or star from star.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON

     Contrary to the etymology of their name,  atoms are not unbreakable. They have  structure and components. The recognition of the composite nature of atoms is yet another intellectual triumph of our century. For it is only in the 20th century that human ingenuity has penetrated  into the deepest core of matter, and unraveled  the marvels that are continually occurring in the invisible substratum of perceived reality. We shall glimpse into the wonders of the microcosm in another chapter. Here we simply note that atoms consist of electrical charges, and that they are dynamic and spectacular in how they behave. They have an uncanny resemblance to the solar system where planets orbit around a central star, for within the atom too minute electrons are whirling around massive nuclei. The simplest atom, that of the most common element hydrogen, consists of a single very light negatively charged electron orbiting around a much heavier positively charged proton. In a carbon atom six electrons are circling a nucleus with six protons and six neutrons. We may exclaim, like the poet Blake, that we are see a world in a grain of atom!

     Equally remarkable is the essential emptiness that pervades the atomic realm. If the entire atom were enlarged to a territory a few hundred miles across, then its central nucleus would be like a cottage somewhere at the center while the circling electrons would be like automobiles moving around in distant beltways. Thus, much of the region between cottage and cars is pure unoccupied space,  not unlike the interplanetary emptiness that pervades the solar domain. Indeed, if the mass concentrations within the atoms were forced to come into direct contact with one another, in other words, if the stuff in atoms is squeezed into contiguous proximity,  and all the atoms in a substance were forced to touch each other, filling all the available emptiness in between, then a spoonful of matter would weigh a million tons and more.

     This too is intriguing to our intuitive grasp of the world. For it appears that when we hold a piece of matter in hand we are actually touching  sheer emptiness, spotted here and there with material centers. And so are our own bodies, and every other piece of matter: gaping empty, strewn with material bits like needles in a haystack.

Ultimate entities

          And in the lowest deep a lower deep...opens wide....

- JOHN MILTON

   If the atom itself is cuttable, so are some of its components. Probing into matter has been compared to the peeling of an onion, for as each layer is undressed what remains seems to have more layers still. But we will not give up until the last dot of perceived reality is spotted. So we have gone deeper and deeper, armed with the flashlights of elaborate instruments and mighty mathematics, to uncover the ultimate bricks of the material world.

     Each era of physics formulates its own final findings as to where the complexity halts. By the last quarter of our own century physics has painted a picture of matter at its  core, that is cogent and colorful, and claiming at least as much finality as what our predecessors claimed about theirs.

     We shall glimpse into more details of this picture in another chapter. Here we simply note that on the basis of whatever we know and think today  the material world seems to be constructed of three principal kinds of point-mass concentrations. These bear the names quarks, leptons, and field particles. And in each category there are quite a few. Now think of this, wonder of wonders! The hardy tangible stuff of the material universe emerges out of infinitesimally small punctual masses, not unlike a canvas by Seurat on which tiny dabs create magnificent sceneries.

     How these quarks and leptons and field particles  act and interact essentially determines the nature of perceived reality. They are responsible for the way the world behaves on our scale and on any. They are the ultimate puppeteers, as it were, the most fundamental of all fundamental particles, for it is to them that physics traces today  every known aspect of the physical world.

     Is this not a most astounding statement that physics makes? It says, in effect, that every bit of observed event in the phenomenal world, be it tides in oceans,  explosions in supernovas,  orbits of planets,  snowflakes in winter, or whatever, every single thing and event of perceived reality  can be accounted for  in terms of a handful of different entities which barely occupy any space at all, for that is what point-like concentration  means!

     Now what is ironic about human civilization is that this world view is supposed to reflect an ultimate revelation, a profound secret, a final answer, or something of that significance; yet, like the luxurious life of  jet setters, it is the talk and truth of a privileged few: a few thousand maybe of a population of five billion and more. The rest of the human race may have heard of quarks or leptons in some TV specials or write ups in Time or Newsweek, but they give a hoot for all this, if only because it does not touch them in any significant way.

TRANSFORMATION OF MATTER

          ...the universe delights above all in changing the things that exist

          and making new ones of the same pattern.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

     When the log in the fireplace burns, wood turns to smoke and ash.  A piece of metal rusts, seedlings grow to plants,  gunpowder explodes and food is  digested: these too are processes in which one kind of matter changes to others,  instances of chemical transformation, as we say. Substances may of course retain their species for long periods. But they also can, and often do, undergo changes in kind, as in the examples cited above. Many of these changes occur naturally in the physical world, and a great many are also brought about by human intervention.

     Chemical transformations are instigated by heat or light or electricity or whatever. The net effect is to change matter from one kind into another. What is happening is change at a basic level, since substances are determined by the content and configuration of their atomic essence. Chemical reactions imply the splitting and forming of molecules, the switching of partners by atoms to dance with newer ones.

     Material transformations occur unceasingly in the world around us. When a piece of paper yellows under light, and acid turns to salt, when the green of the summer leaves turn to the golden glory of the fall, silent and secretive chemical reactions have come into play. Chemical reactions  keep a dynamic interchange among the molecules in the world. They are essential for our biological survival for millions of them are continuously at work in our bodies, breaking up and making up molecules, fortifying blood and utilizing oxygen, for the throb of life depends on complex biochemistry.

     Human intelligence has understood how countless reactions come about, and human ingenuity contrives chemical reactions of interest and utility for us. This knowledge and skill sustain giant industries that serve and support a thousand human desires, and incidentally pollute the environment in which we live..

     In former times, some transformations used to be reported which were often naive or deceptive. In the more magical phases of human history, clever men and women claimed they could change lead into silver and copper into gold. This was magic mongering par excellence, based, it was claimed, on  occult skills. If superficially successful (i.e. satisfactory to an eager client and went undetected) it  could make the practitioner rich and respected. But the rosy promises of an alchemy that transmuted metals vanished with the pre-scientific past, though some present day adherents to defunct views still insist this to be a possibility.

     Yet, in a peculiar way, the claims of the alchemists were not  empty or unrealizable. In our own century, thanks to an understanding of nuclear reactions, nuclear physicists have brought about transmutation too, not in simplistic conversion of base metals into noble, but in nuclear matter.

States of matter

                   O! that this too too solid flesh would melt,

                   Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...

SHAKESPEARE (Hamlet)

   Water and rocks, soil and vegetation,  metals, minerals and much more are splashed all over our planet. There is also the invisible layer of air which  is carried along by our planet in its cruise around the sun.

     All matter we know here below is either sturdy as solid, flowing as liquid, or tenuous as gas. These are the ordinarily observed states of matter. Matter in each of these states has specific properties in regards to its ability to stay put where placed, to run and flow wherever it can, or to expand itself into all available volume.

     As we raise the temperature of a solid chunk, it becomes tender, and eventually melts into the liquid state. When the temperature of a liquid is steadily increased, there comes a point when it begins to vaporize. The phenomenon is readily observed when ice turns to water, and water and steam.

     Ultimately, the solidity or fluidity of matter is a reflection of how tightly bound its ultimate constituents are. If atoms and molecules are held together in tight holds, they may at best shiver about their fixed position, like the branches of trees in breeze or wind, but cannot break away from their mutual hold. As we heat the solid, we are feeding in more and more energy: it is as if the breeze turns into a more powerful wind, and then the strong hold is weakened to a rope-like link, with far greater freedom for the molecules to drift. And so we get the liquid phase. And finally, at sufficiently high temperatures, even the weak links are broken off: every molecule becomes utterly independent of every other, buzzing away in all directions, bouncing off here and there from the atoms and molecules it encounters until a hard wall pushes  it back into the container wherein it begins to meander every which way once again.

     Depending on their intrinsic properties, substances are solid, liquid or gaseous at a given temperature. Most elements are solid or gas at the ordinary terrestrial temperatures. Dark red bromine and silvery mercury happen to be the only elements that are ordinarily liquid.

Plasma

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines.

SHAKESPEARE (Sonnets: I.18)

     Think of what will happen if a gas were heated  to ever increasing temperatures. At the core of matter are atoms which consist of electrically charged nuclei around which are whirling yet smaller charged entities called electrons. At enormously high temperatures the very atoms of which matter is made will be stripped of their orbiting electrons. Matter will be turned to nuclei in stark nudity,  becoming an insufferably hot concentration of mass, gory like a creature that has been skinned, impossible to touch or even be placed in a container, for in its voracious heat it will vaporize all that comes to its vicinity.

     Yes, this is what physics has uncovered: if the temperature of a substance reaches  to extraordinarily heights - of the order of a few million degrees - then matter is transformed to a still another phase. We call this plasma. Pure plasma is unimaginably hot matter. Where can Nature hold such  a thing save in the wilderness of empty space, far away from ordinary material concentrations? That is just what we find, for all those twinkling stars, our sun included, whose temperatures are fantastically high, are made up of matter in the plasma state.

     Plasma is matter in an uncommon state - but only in the cooler planetary systems. Before we knew of the constitution of stars, it was believed that stars were just burning gases. One would have thought that plasma was  more the exception than the rule. But no, Nature has fooled us again! Much of the matter in the universe - at least of the kind we have observed thus far - is more plasma than plain, for the stars are where the action really is. It is in the core of the stars that most matter is concentrated. And they are massive beyond comprehension.  Interstellar dust, planets and other rocky blobs are anomalies: cooler states of matter where, sometimes,  life can evolve and flowers can blossom.

     But the scientific spirit will not be content with  the mere knowledge that there is plasma out there. Why not create it right here below? We get  fleeting glimpses of plasma when a lightning flashes and the northern nights illumine the sky, for these are in fact manifestations of ordinary matter turned plasma. Human ingenuity has succeeded in making plasma of the stellar variety also:  for that is what obtains in the heart of a hydrogen bomb, and in laboratories that explore how one may tap nuclear fusion for human needs.  They are of course awesome, threatening, and wrought with potential disaster, those horrible hydrogen bombs. But, in the context of physics and human ingenuity, we may look upon  one of their explosions as a momentary mini-star right here on earth! Never before in all of cosmic history - as far as we know - has nuclear fusion occurred in a region that is not in the entrails of a star! No small achievement!

     But we have concocted weaker plasmas for more imminent use: these are gases from whose atoms, not all, but just a couple of electrons have been stripped. We call them ionized gases. They were already used in the 19th century, long  before they were recognized as such. But in the last decade of the 20th century, they have come to play a major role in a variety of industries: aerospace, biomedical, steel, and electronics. Not many may know 240 high intensity light bulbs, each of 175-watt power  have been replaced by just two sulfur plasma lamps which provide four times as much light. "Precision plasma-processing is quietly underpinning much of the current phase" of a new technological revolution  that is slowly occurring.

Mass: measure of matter

       ... I were but a little happy, if I could say how much.

- SHAKESPEARE (Much Ado about Nothing)

   A characteristic of matter is its resistance to change its state of motion. When  push comes to shove, matter tends to oppose. It is as if it reacts reluctantly to any change in its state of motion. The degree of reluctance or resistance to change may be taken as a measure of the amount of matter contained in the body. We refer to this as the body's mass.

     The conventional unit of mass adopted by the scientific community is  the kilogram. It is officially defined as follows:

     The kilogram (unit of mass) is the mass of a specific cylinder made out of an alloy of platinum and iridium, which is considered as the international prototype of the kilogram, and is maintained under the care of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in a vault at Sèvres, France.

     Every material body, solid, liquid, gas, or plasma, consists of a certain amount of matter, i.e. it has a certain mass. As we survey the things around us some, like particles of dust or grains of sand, have very little mass; while others, like giant rocks and mammoth mountains are considerably more massive. We may consider smaller things like molecules and atoms whose masses in comparison are woefully flimsy. We may also go beyond to the moon and the sun, and they  have masses,  much more than anything in our neighborhood, except for our dear earth which, after all,  has a stature in the cosmic arena.

      Astronomers routinely talk  about the mass of this star or that. But have you ever wondered about how one came to compute the mass of the earth or the moon or the distant sun? Human eyes have peered through tubes contrived with lenses and mirrors, the mind has constructed concepts and theories. Equipped with these we have come to a fair idea of how massive a distant binary star system is. This is no mean achievement, come to think of it.

     This is where the real excitement of science is, the ingenious and imaginative ways by which unreachable entities are brought within our scope, and the not-directly perceived dimensions of perceived reality are tracked down one way or another. It is easy to discourse on the limitations of the scientific method, or extrapolate its  results  into fantasy-land. But no pure speculation about the nature of things has ever led to any statement of significance on the measurable aspects of perceived reality.

Conservation of matter

          It is sufficiently clear that all things are changed, and nothing really perishes, and that the sum of matter remains absolutely the same.

- FRANCIS BACON

   When the magician pulls out a rabbit from an empty hat, we instinctively feel that he has fooled us. We know in our hearts that Lucretius was right when he said Nil posse creari De nilo: Nothing can be created out of nothing.   And when the trickster makes the card disappear, this too we take to be prestidigitation, for we know that nothing can vanish into nothing. Even little children chuckle when they see such things, for they too know this.

     But we also know that a brand new rabbit can come out of mother rabbit. And a piece of candle seems to disappear altogether, not by the waving of a magician's hand, but by slow and steady burning. In all such cases, chemical transformations have occurred.

     Now there is another level in which  the non-vanishing aspect  of tangible matter has been confirmed: the quantitative level. Matter may change in form, but not in quantity. Thus, if we have wood and air in a sealed enclosure, and the wood is somehow lit, at the end of the process when all that is left in the container are  ashes,  carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other gases, we will find that the enclosure plus its contents weigh precisely the same after as before the burning started. This is a principle of fundamental importance in our understanding of the physical world, the quantitative equivalent of the "nothing from or into nothing" principle of common sense. We refer to it as the law of conservation of matter. In the words of its first formulator, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, "in every operation, there is an equal quantity of matter before and after the operation.

     This significant truth about matter transformation could not have been grasped before precision weighing was introduced as part of the scientific investigation of chemical reactions  in the 18th century. The result did not come about by discussing the question only conceptually, since for ages people had imagined, even from (not so carefully considered) experiments, that bodies gain or lose weight as a result of chemical reactions.    

     But, like a great many scientific insights, the principle of matter conservation too had to give place to a more refined version of it: after all, a good deal of scientific progress consists in improving or replacing the world views of  past generations.

Total matter in the universe

I believe there are 15,747,136,275,002,577,605,653,961,181,555,

     468, 044, 717,914,527,116,709,366,231,425,076,185,631,031.296 protons in the universe and the same number of electrons.

- ARTHUR STANLEY EDDINGTON

     Was the eminent astrophysicist and popularizer of science right? Of course he was, unless he was lying, since he began the statement with "I believe."

     But it really does not matter if the number is right. What is significant is the boldness behind it. Measuring mind, which has appeared in the stillness of eternity and is sparkling like the twinkle of a firefly in the utter darkness of space, declares it has figured out the number of particles in the entirety of the universe! This is far more impressive than a microbe in the entrails of an elephant pronouncing on the dimensions of the beast.

     Yet this is the kind of thing our astrophysicists and cosmologists have been accomplishing. Yes, they have measured the world and weighed it too. True, their estimates vary from era to era, each periodic news report modifying or discarding a figure held true for long. Even if we do not know precisely how much matter the universe holds, we do have an idea of how to track it down by our schemes and systems.

     The method, in principle, is simple enough. First we figure out the average mass of a star, then the average number of stars in a galaxy, and then we estimate the total number of galaxies in the universe. All we need to do is multiply these three numbers, and voilà, we have a number for the total mass of the whole universe! Yes, what we derive thus will only be an estimate  because our averages and observed numbers are not that accurate.

     The estimate has served our purpose in at least two ways: First, it has partially satisfied  our   quantitative curiosity about the world. After all, this is a prime motivation for the game of science. Secondly, it enables us to see if the observed data conform to our theories and models about the cosmos at large. But here there has been an impasse.

     If the Big Bang model of how the universe came to be is right, as is believed by a great many cosmologists today , then there seems to be a disturbing divergence between what the theory says and what our estimates furnish. Indeed, the estimated mass is a paltry one percent of what one would expect from theory.

     In the conventional methodology of science, if the results of observation are drastically different  from a theoretical model, one replaces the theory and tries to formulate a new one to account better for observational data. But the Big Bang model is so persuasive in other respects that theoretical cosmologists will not easily yield. Instead, they propose that perhaps there is something missing in our collected data. Perhaps some existing matter has been ignored in our census-report.

     In the framework of current cosmology one estimates the ratio of  the mass of the universe to the proton mass be  to be 1078.

Missing mass, dark matter and macho

Thou, most awful Form!

                   Rises forth thy silent sea of pines,

                   How silently! Around thee and above

                   Deep as the air and dark, substantial, black,

                   An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it

                   As with a wedge.

- SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE

   More than sixty years ago, Fritz Zwicky surmised from his study of the motions of galactic clusters that the Milky Way should be far more massive than we had been led to believe by merely estimating the number of visible stars in our system.  Could it be that we were too hasty in concluding that much of the matter in the physical universe is to be found in flashing stars? Were we right in imagining that only what was visible existed? If a simple stone lies in pitch darkness, and it does not glow, would it be visible? If tenuous gases filled interstellar space and themselves emitted no visible rays, would we observe them? Should matter necessarily have to be  bright to exist in the stretches of space?

     These are pertinent questions, and to say no, no, and no to each one of these is not only reasonable, but promises to offer a clue to the puzzle of the missing mass. Maybe the universe is more massive than what we had thought. Maybe there is more than mere cosmic dust in the expanse of interstellar space. Maybe there are vast amounts of dark matter  in the heavens.

     But what is this dark matter we think pervades the world?  Once it was believed that this was made up of the mysterious neutrinos that are known to zooming past and through every region of space and through every star in the world. But this idea has now been pretty much abandoned. Could dark matter then  consist of splinters from the primordial blow-up that caused the universe in the first place, messy discharges that accompanied cosmic birth? This  was another idea popular a decade ago, but now it too has lost adherents. Or is dark matter  simply a grandiose collection of non-luminous rocks and planets, much like  the asteroids of our own solar system, and/or sterile stellar debris, worn out remnants of pulsars and pent-up stars, a great many perhaps, but mere dead-weight in the throbbing stellar multitude? Some have suggested that dark matter could well account for more than 99% of the mass of the universe! If this were so,  we have been once again proved wrong in our assessment of what kinds of matter populate our universe.

     But how are we to see objects that by definition are invisible? By indirect means, of course. After all, that is how we became aware of the planets Neptune and Pluto. Dark matter, if it existed in significant quantities, would have an effect on galactic motions.  Then too, if such great masses lie interspersed in space, their pull would be considerable even on light which would thus be deviated by what has been called a gravitational lens.  Astronomers have been scanning the skies and tracking the rotations of galaxies precisely to detect such influences. They have been measuring with uncanny precision  the orbital motions of the minor galaxies that  circumambulate our own. Their data seem to suggest that our own galaxy must be at least five times more massive than what seems to be the case when only all the shining stars are taken into account! Searching for a descriptive acronym, astronomers have hit upon MACHO to describe such matter: MAssive Compact Halo Objects. It also conveys the dominant role it plays in directing galactic motions.

Antimatter

          There is nothing more certain than that both are right, except that

          both are wrong.

- ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

   Many aspects of perceived reality strike us by symmetries, explicit or implicit. In the petals of flowers, in the shape of leaves,  and in the form of animals majestic; in spatial directions and temporal progression, even in ethical principles like good and evil, and in human experiences like pain and pleasure, there are symmetries that impress the mind. Poets, artists, mathematicians and philosophers, all have described, captured, analyzed and reflected upon this ubiquitous feature in the physical world. Not surprisingly, it has also been forced into the physicist's recognition of the nature of matter.

     Recall that the matter we are familiar with in the world of everyday experience is made up ultimately of atoms. The atoms, as noted earlier,  consist of electrically charged sub-units: negatively charged light  electrons and positively charged heavier protons. Now, we may wonder, why this asymmetry between proton and  electron? Why cannot there be  a positively charged light electron and a more massive  negatively charged proton?

     It follows from theoretical considerations into the nature of the micro-world that if there is an electron in the physical world, there surely must be another particle, its electrical reflection as it were, identical except for the charge: in other words, a positive electron. For the proton too and for every other fundamental particle in the universe, this statement holds. This theoretical conjecture, rather this conclusion from the mathematical exploration of the microcosm, was confirmed not long after it was derived:  positive electrons were in fact spotted, of all places, in what are called cosmic ray showers at high altitudes. We call such mirror reflections of ordinary matter, antimatter.    

     Thus, an atom of anti-hydrogen will be made up of a negative proton with an orbiting positive electron.  If such matter exists, one may envision anti-planets, anti-stars, and anti-galaxies somewhere out there constituting an anti-universe all by itself! But there are technical (conceptual) difficulties in accepting the existence of stellar and galactic globules of anti-matter.

     Then, where is one to get a grain of anti-sand, say, just to see and study? It turns out that matter and anti-matter, like fire and water, simply cannot co-exist. When there is an encounter, they destroy each other instantaneously. No, it is more than inflammable, this anti-matter. It would vanish and make vanish any speck of ordinary matter it may come in contact with: both will be transformed into a flash of insubstantial radiation. That is one reason we do not detect such anti-materials in the world around.

     Yet, in the complex mammoth furnaces of present day physics, known as particle accelerators, physicists routinely create anti-matter for getting to know more about the nature of the material world. Bits of  anti-matter come and go in fleeting swiftness, but leave enough trails for us to study their properties.

     Now we may ask, as with time, why this imbalance in the cosmos we know where positive protons and negative electrons, rather than their anti-pairs daringly dominate? Physicists say this was not always so. In the very distant epochs of cosmic infancy, when the universe was hot beyond imagination and as yet  barely beginning to manifest itself, there were equal amounts of both. And then something happened which brought about a complex symmetry-breaking mechanism which caused more particles (such as we know them) than anti-particles to emerge. 

     So here we are, condemned to eke out our existence in this world of matter where electrons are negative and protons positive. But it is very likely that if the symmetry had been broken in the other's favor, we would be wondering why that turned out to be our fate. In the words of Stevenson, both  worlds are right, and both are wrong, not one rather than the other.

Annihilation and creation of matter

       The annihilation of matter is unthinkable for the same reason that

          the creation of matter is unthinkable.....

- HERBERT SPENCER (1851)

     How naive, misguided, or downright wrong the emphatic assertions of generations past sometimes sound from the vantage point of current knowledge! Basing himself squarely on the findings of the scientists of his own era and relying on intuitively suggestive views, Herbert Spencer, an eloquent spokesman for science in the 19th century, proclaimed that it was even unthinkable that matter could be either created or destroyed.

     Today it is general knowledge, or it ought to be, that Spencer's statement is not true at all. We have come to know that matter too can be destroyed, not on the basis of airy speculations by reflective philosophers, but from the work and minds of matter-of-fact investigators into the roots of perceived reality.

     In  1905, just two years after Spencer passed away, Einstein propounded his famous theory one of whose corollaries is that matter and energy are equivalent and can be inter-converted. What this means is that firm and tangible matter can be annihilated, yes literally blown out of existence from this world, with the consequent production of an equivalent amount of energy. Reciprocally, out of intangible energy, tangible matter can arise.

     The famous relationship  E = mc2  embodies this result. But it not just a formula with the name of Einstein appended to it. It is a powerful pronouncement of a basic truth about physical reality. It plays a role in the core of every star that shines in the universe, it is at work in the nuclear generation of electricity in our reactors, and it finds expression in the awesome blasts of nuclear explosions.

     In the accelerators of high energy physics countless elementary particles (the ultimate units of material reality) are being continuously created by human ingenuity. If it adds to our pride, let us note that it is not simply in bringing back a dying man to life and health that Man plays God: it is also when he creates matter out of apparent nothingness, or crushes solid stuff into ethereal naught that frail humans try to imitate their Creator.

Matter and life

       Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!

- NEW TESTAMENT

   It is an ancient and continuing controversy: Is there more to life than mere matter? Are creatures simply automata, robots running around, powered by chemical, instead of electric, batteries? Is man a mere machine, his brain secreting thoughts as his liver secretes bile? ? Is life just  a system of bio-molecules, functioning as per the laws of chemistry, more complex surely than the most sophisticated gadget, but in essence not much different?  

     The debate dates back to the dawn of philosophical arguments. We all know the material dimension of life, but not all  agree on its non-material. It is easy to define the characteristics of life and decide the difference between life forms and machines on that basis, but this solution becomes fuzzy at the lowest rungs of life, and at the highest levels of machines.

     A significant partial answer to the age-old question came in the 19th century when Friedrich Wöhler, the chemist, synthesized urea, an organic compound, from ammonium cyanate, a laboratory chemical. He wrote unabashedly to fellow chemist Berzelius: "I can no longer, as it were, hold back my chemical  urine; and I have let out that I can make urea without needing a kidney, whether of man or dog."

     The rest, as the expression goes, is history. Since then,  more and more of the materials  normally secreted in living organisms  have been routinely synthesized in bottles and beakers. Today, as Victor Weisskopf put it succinctly, "Chemical analysis has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that  living objects contain the same kinds of atoms as non-living things."

     Beyond that, probing through its own spyglass of concepts and data science has come up with its own version of the genesis of life from brute matter which goes somewhat as follows.

     Known as chemical evo­lution, this scheme rests on the principle that many of the fundamental attributes of life may be tracked down to the properties of complex chemical structures, bio­chemical molecules, and on the fact that under appropriate condi­tions some of these molecules may be syn­thesized in nature or in the labo­ratory.

     The two most important types of such fun­damen­tal  molecules are  proteins and nucleic acids. These are very large size molecules at the atomic level. They result from chain-like com­bina­tions of a number of smaller molecules which more or less re­semble one another. The question then is: How did the first proteins and nucleic acids come about?

     In the remote past, more than three billion years ago, and barely a billion years after the formation of our planet, there were lands barren and waste, volcanoes steaming and puffing sulfu­ric fumes, and oceans of salt-free waters. The earth's at­mosphere con­sisted largely of hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and a few other gases. Gigantic clouds and torrential rains rose and fell, seeping salts from land to pristine sea. In the mammoth laboratories of the earth's oceans and airs, kindled by heat and lightning, by ra­diations from the sun and by other excitants, the turbulent chemistry of the early molecules churned out the first organic structures. Carbohydrates and amino acids were thus concocted. These increased in comple­xity as further reactions took place. The waters of the period consti­tuted  what is described as a primordial soup in which mu­tual interactions of the components gave rise to molecules of ever increasing size and intricacy. Energy trapping mechanisms came into play. After a myriad patters and permutations, mysterious enti­ties with the property of self-replication emerged. These again grew in numbers and vari­ety, until at last nucleic acids and proteins were formed. The miracle of life had begun.

     Was this all part of a Divine Plan? Or did it oc­cur by sheer chance? No one can tell.  All we can say is that  these were among the natural consequences of the physico-chemical context in which the earth found itself at that time. Whatever the ul­timate cause of it all, the end result, life,   was truly magnificent. This was only an inkling of grander glories yet to come.

     Once the spark of life was lit, the self-replicating systems began to multiply in number and variety. The nucleic acids em­bodying the subtle codings that preserve life patterns slipped now and then. These changes in the structures were the muta­tions  which may be looked upon either as respon­ses to the unceasing turmoil’s in the earth's physico-chemical features, or as alterations merely resulting from changing condi­tions.

     The first palpitations of life began to evolve along countless di­rections. As ages rolled by, and grand upheavals shook the planet's crust, ever newer kinds of plants and creatures shaped them­selves. Both land and sea became homes for innu­merable life forms. Amphibians, insects, reptiles, and mammals, all evolved along with a pictures­que plethora of plants and trees. After well over a billion years of such experimentation, the evolv­ing principles brought forth the product we call the human race. This conscious life form pro­bably emerged some three to four million years ago, a very late comer in the series.  Its poten­tials remained largely latent for millions of years. Even now, they are by no means fully ex­pressed.

     To form some idea of the mind-boggling time scales involved in all of this, one some­times considers these changes in a more fami­liar time-reference system. Suppose that the earth was formed a hundred years ago (which we shall take to represent four and a half billion years). Then humanoids began to emerge barely three weeks ago, and the Christian era is only some twenty minutes old. Astrophysicists assure us (again on this scale) that in another hund­red or so years the sun would extin­guish itself, probably after an orgy of conflagration during which it would mercilessly swallow up Mercury and Venus, and perhaps even our dear Earth.

     But Nature has taunted humans by making life too short to be taken seriously, and yet too long for life not to be taken seri­ously. That is why  we continue with our plans and projects, quarrels and ambitions, in dead earnest.

     Does this mean, however, that there is no difference between brute matter and throbbing life. It certainly is true that word analysis has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that poems and novels contain the same words as dictionaries, but does  it follow that there is no difference between a sonnet and the accompanying word-list? Is there no difference between a giggling child and the atoms and molecules of which its muscles are formed?

     No one can deny there are differences, but we know not yet their basis, at least not within the limited framework of physics and chemistry.

MATTER AND MIND

          A man's body  and his mind ... are exactly like a jerkin and

          a jerkin's lining: rumple the one, and you rumple the other.

- LAURENCE STERNE

     What is this fleeting entity in the human body that inquires and analyzes, reflects and reasons, comprehends, calculates and creates? What is this mind that is at the root of all our philosophies and literature, religions and sciences? Is it merely a consequence of  the ultimate structures that grid the brain? Is it, in other words, just physics and chemistry at extraordinarily complex levels? Is it a mere macro-property of molecular vibrations?

     Poets and philosophers have spoken about the powers of the mind. Manilus of ancient Rome declared majestically.

Nothing can withstand the powers of the mind. Barriers, enormous masses of matter, the remotest recesses are conquered. All things succumb. The very heaven itself is laid open.

     Every  accomplishment of the human spirit has involved the mind. Illnesses have been controlled and cured by the powers of the mind. Tales, ancient and modern, have painted mind-power over brain (matter) power. Some  believe that there can be a mind without body. In certain mythologies the mind can leave the body, travel far and wide, and come back like a homing pigeon. In others, it can suck in information about events occurring in far away places. It has been argued on the basis of quantum mechanics that the mind is an open system and can  work more wonders than it already does. But on the basis of what is normally observed, more often than not, it is Mohammed who goes to the mountain than the other way around.

     We can throw a monkey-wrench in the normal functioning of the mind by polluting the brain. A modicum of mescaline will do the job. When disease invades the brain, or brain cells age, the mind withers too.  Destroy the matter composing the brain, and off goes the mind with it. All the talk of mind over matter is true only up to a point. One is obliged to concede that mind is subservient to matter. Ultimately, matter triumphs, at least on our scale.

     All this does not negate the fact that more marvelous than routine life-throb is the human mind: a flicker perhaps in the cosmic sea, but a mysterious light it is that shines brighter than any galaxy, for, but for mind, all the grandeur and glory of the world would remain  unsought, unexperienced, and unsung.

     So we grant that matter is more powerful, but we may claim that the mind is more meaningful, for, as the poet said:

                   Man's mind's a mirror of heavenly sights,

                   A brief wherein all marvels summèd lie,

                   Of fairest forms and sweetest shapes the store,

                    Most graceful all, yet thought may grace them more.