IV. THE STUFF THE WORLD
IS MADE OF:
stuff the world is made of.
- WILLIAM COWPER
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
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
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
Variety is sweet in all things.
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
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
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.
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.
structure of matter
Seeing the root of the matter is found in me.
- THE BOOK OF JOB
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
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.
structure of atoms
Atom from atom yawns as far
As moon from earth, or star from star.
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.
And in the lowest deep a lower
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.
...the universe delights above all in changing the things that exist
and making new ones of the same pattern.
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
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
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
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.
O! that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...
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
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.
too hot the eye of heaven shines.
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.
measure of matter
... I were but a little happy, if I could say how much.
SHAKESPEARE (Much Ado about Nothing)
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
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
It is sufficiently clear that all things are changed, and nothing really
perishes, and that the sum of matter remains absolutely the same.
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
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.
matter in the universe
I believe there are
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
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
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.
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
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.
There is nothing more certain than
that both are right, except that
both are wrong.
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
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
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.
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
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.
Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
graceful all, yet thought may grace them more.