What is matter?


If you are a physicist then perhaps you can help this preacher, ex-engineer, get to grips with what matter is?

In my Scottish O-Grade chemistry I remember our teacher, Mr Armstrong, drawing endless atomic structure diagrams on the blackboard.  They looked a bit like this:

At the scale they were drawn I got the impression that matter what fairly substantial stuff, made up of closely packed rings of electrons flying around a pretty big solid nucleolus core.

But websites like this one tell me that if the proton in the centre of a hydrogen atom was the size of a small football, placed in Trafalgar Square (London) then then its electron ring would be buzzing around the M25.  Atoms are mostly made up of noting.  Matter is not at all substantial after all.

On top of that, atoms together make the mountains the great immovable objects of the world. Where does the energy come from which keeps electrons spinning round the nucleolus of an atom for eons? Is this perpetual energy or does the electron need a boost from outside the atom and if it needs a boost, where does this come from?

I recently blogged on God as author and director of a giant real movie and I can’t help but think that atomic physics helps this case.  As one website puts it:

I used to think that things like rocks and buildings and my own skeleton were fairly solid. But they’re made up of atoms, and atoms, as you can see here, contain so little actual material that they can barely be said to exist. We are all phantoms.

If matter is largely nothing and what it is is largely some form of energy, perpetuated by the work of God, we are much more of a movie projection and much less of the hard stuff than I was led to believe as a teenager. I am on the right tracks?

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7 Responses to What is matter?

  1. Ros says:

    Matter and energy are the same thing (see: e=mc^2).

  2. Tom Watts says:

    The Trafalgar Square / M25 picture is okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t communicate the astonishingly high density of the nucleus relative to the size of the atom. According to Wikipedia average nuclear density is 4×10^17 kg/m^3. The densest element is osmium which is only 22590 kg/m^3, lower by a factor of 10^12 which is unimaginably huge. So although you can think of all that “space” in an atom it’s not really comparable when you’ve got something so dense in the middle.

    Electrons get their “energy” from the electromagnetic force holding atoms together. The force is one of the fundamental forces of the universe (like gravitation) so I’m not sure it makes much sense to ask where it comes from. Again it doesn’t really work to just think of it as a ball spinning round the M25 because the Newtonian laws of physics don’t work on an atomic level. Atoms are basically full of energy. That’s how nuclear power works. In fact it’s probably right to say that in one sense that is where all energy “comes from”.

    Here endeth my knowledge of physics; someone who actually knows what they’re talking about can correct me.

  3. Tom Watts says:

    Just to add to that, I think I’m right in saying that a football in Trafalgar Square which was as dense as an atomic nucleus would create a gravitational force so high that Nelson’s column and St Martin’s in the Fields and the National Gallery would collapse onto it. Certainly it would kill the pigeons. So the picture is okay as far as it goes…

  4. peterB says:

    Bonkers isn’t it! Almost all of everything is the nothing-filled gap between stuff.

    There’s a bit at the end of ‘The Last Battle’ (final Narnia book) where, after the children have died their surroundings in heaven are described as being much more real than real life ever was (or something), and it seems that there’s certainly a lot of scope for that.

    I have a rather shaky physics A-level to my name, but I understand that the forces causing the electrons to orbit the nucleus are similar to Gravity. The nucleus is positively charged, and the electrons are all negatively charged.

    Of course, electrons are both there and not there because they behave as particles unless you watch them, when they behave like waves (I think).

  5. étrangère says:

    Indeed. But to say they’re held together by electromagnetic force, or that the planets are held together by gravitational force, is as much as to say, ‘We can describe how they act in relation to each other, and they ‘always’ act like that, and we can put an equation to that description and name it a “force”‘. Thence you could submit to the observer’s paradox. But it’s not inconsistent with saying that the Lord holds all things together by his mighty Word of power (which we see and describe as ‘laws’ or ‘forces’). It’s not evidence: but it’s not inconsistent with it, either, especially if you haven’t got enough blind faith to believe in an infinite multiverse.

  6. Bill Miller says:

    I have done first year university level Physics … but that was a long time ago and as the parent of small children the response that now comes to mind is “Oh dear, what can the matter be?”

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