Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Trouble With Matter

"And then the Spirit . . . breathed . . . and out they came: earth and sun, moon and stars. Hills and creeks and fields. Thunder, lightning, meteors. All in a single breath. The Spirit gave a name to what its breath had made. The name was Matter."

It was a word that Grandfather hadn't used before, at least not like that. (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 2)

You can see it, touch it, stand on it, count on it. It's concrete, a reality no one can deny. You can build a philosophy on it, or a way of life. Solid stuff, Matter. So unlike the ethereal things we call Spirit.

Or is it?

In the Old Story of Everything (first Spirit, then Matter, then Life), Matter was indeed clear-cut. But in the New Story, where Matter comes first, that solid stuff gets real slippery and even downright spooky.

Problem number one: now you see it, now--mostly--you don't. Astronomers tell us that most matter is "dark." Look out into the universe and you can't see dark matter. You can't detect it with any instrument. You know it's there only because it pulls at visible matter--bending light, for example, or affecting the rotational speed of galaxies, or creating rings (you gotta see this). According to one estimate, dark matter comprises 22% of the mass of the universe versus only 4% of visible matter. The remaining 74% is dark energy.

Go to the microscopic scale and there's more trouble. Matter becomes atoms; then protons and neutrons and electrons; then particles like gluons, leptons, mesons, and muons; and then (finally?) quarks. But what are these fundamental particles? Forces? Geometric points? Chunks of space-time? Strings of energy? Membranes? In this strange world, one can only guess.

And what about "anti-matter"? It seems that every particle has an anti-particle with an opposite charge. An anti-quark to go with a quark, for example. Particle-antiparticle pairs can annihilate each other, a principle used in today's particle accelerators. That's why anti-matter is not found on earth, except very briefly. When some comes into existence, it is immediately annihilated by ordinary matter.

So what's a materialist to do? Not to mention a material girl? I can't speak for Madonna, but if I were a philosopher I'd say this. Realize that your understanding of matter is a function of the scale at which you perceive it. Realize that there are other scales. And then go on with the scale you've got, seeing matter, touching it, bumping into it.

But while you're rubbing your head, consider this. In the New Story, the stuff turns into music! Into love and hate, truth and lies, vengeance and compassion! All on its own. It needs a lot of time to do it, and only a little of it makes the grade. But if there's a you, you can be sure that some of it did.

Maybe the trouble isn't with Matter, but that we think too little of it. In the New Story, it's fertile in surprising ways. It's even a bit ethereal. It took nearly 14 billion years, but hydrogen turned into compassion. I'm rubbing my head. How did it happen?




Anonymous said...

You were correct last week in asserting that matter would be tough--but, you rose to the challenge. It is a matter of scale, isn't it? I've been reading an article about nano-technology in which an attempt is made to give "nano" meaning. For example, a nanometer is explained as a billionth of a meter. Now, thatt doesn't mean a whole lot me, especially in an era where politicians talk about trillions of dollars without blinking an eye. When I was a kid, a trillion was used only to express the inexpressible.

This comparison gave nanometer some meaning for me. If the earth were a meter, then a nanometer would be a marble. That has meaning, but I find it somehwat prosaic, you know, a marble is a familiar object. This comparison blew me away. A naometer is defined as the amount of growth in my beard from the time I pick up my razor until I put the razor on my face. WOW!

Then, there's a recent description of a new computer chip that has "gates" that control the movementr of data. These "gates" are 5 atoms thick. My question is: How does anyone know they are there? Their existence was proved when a computer using the chip sent a message to its creators. Are other forms of matter also sending us messages? Maybe we only recognize the ones that we create while the universe may be filled with "nanos" fo them.

John Kotre said...

Interesting, and it's not just an issue of the scale "out there" but an issue of the scale at which we, the observers, exist. Maybe that determines our reception of "messages" from different forms of matter.

Here's another issue of scale that I recently came across--how TIME scale is involved in our designation of "miracles." Rain water goes up a vine and into grapes. The grapes are crushed; they ferment; they become wine. Water becomes wine--it just takes a while.

Over 13 billion years hydrogen becomes compassion. If it happened in an instant, would it be a "miracle"?

Anonymous said...

Here's something from Loren Eiseley's "The Immense Journey," p. 210

"If 'dead' matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful powers, and may not impossibly be, as Hardy has suggested, 'but one mask of many waorn by The Great Face behind."