The Dreams of which Stuff is Made
Pondering the mysteries of matter;
Solidity is an electrical illusion

(Sunday Gazette-Mail, Jan. 10, 1993)

These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. -- Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV
By James A. Haught

Take a dime. Cut it in half with metal-snips. Look at one of the halves.

That's the amount of matter -- a 30th of an ounce -- that turned into energy one day in 1945 at Hiroshima, Japan. It killed 140,000 people and devastated the city.

All the matter of our world contains this unthinkable power within its atoms. Your body, your clothes, your house, your car, the ground under your feet -- every substance has a cataclysm stored in its nuclei. Your thumbnail could produce another Hiroshima.
How can material so placid contain a holocaust?

* * *
Tightly coiled in the nucleus of every cell of your body is six feet of DNA bearing your genetic code. Since the body has around 10 trillion cells, there are about 10 billion miles of DNA inside you.

* * *
Look at a passenger train weighing many tons. What could make it float in the air?
The "spin'' of electrons -- that's what.

In most elements, the whirling electrons of each atom are in pairs spinning in opposite directions, balancing each other. But iron is different. Of its 26 electrons, four spin the same way without reverse companions. This makes each atom a minuscule magnet. When a magnetic field causes all the atoms in a piece of iron to align their polarity, the iron becomes a magnet. (If two of iron's electrons reversed their spin, balancing the other two, iron magnetism wouldn't exist.)

Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains are running in Japan and Germany. The Japanese one floats four inches above its track. A Ford experimental model in California in 1974 attained a suspension of 12 inches.

Electrons orbit atoms at nearly the speed of light -- billions of whirls in a millionth of a second. In this blur, how can so slight a thing as four uncompensated spins hold a train in mid-air?

* * *
Right now, as you remain "still,'' you're moving 400 times faster than a bullet. You are traveling 1,000 miles an hour with Earth's daily rotation, 67,000 mph with Earth's yearly journey around the sun, 550,000 mph with the solar system's revolution around the Milky Way, and 1.3 million mph with the galaxy's motion through the universe.
A bullet goes about 3,000 mph.

How odd that we are born and live and die on a ball hurtling forever at awesome speeds -- yet we wouldn't know we were moving, if scientists didn't tell us.

* * *
With your eyes, you can see the past. Look at the North Star and you are looking at 1300 A.D. Today's light left that star nearly 700 years ago.

In 1987, a supernova flared in the Magellanic Clouds outside the Milky Way. The explosion actually happened 163,000 years ago -- before the first human evolved.

* * *
Discoveries in the past few years have confirmed the quark theory. Thus virtually everything in our world is composed of just four particles: "up'' quarks, "down'' quarks, electrons and neutrinos.

How can a baby's eye, and a hydrogen bomb explosion, and the Atlantic Ocean, and a daisy, and Manhattan Island, and Beethoven's brain, and a spring breeze, all be concoctions of the same four units?

Why do quarks and electrons bind into bigger or smaller atoms with remarkably different properties? If the quarks form 30 protons in the nucleus, it's zinc, essential to your body. If three more protons are added, it's arsenic -- which will kill you.

Why do atoms crave to have eight electrons in their outer orbits, which makes them link into molecules amazingly dissimilar? If carbon atoms lock onto each other in six-sided rings, they are sooty graphite. If they lock in tetrahedrons, they're a dazzling diamond.

How can carbon atoms string themselves into amino acids, which entwine into proteins, which compose living cells of great complexity -- and the cells form an algae, or a cricket, or a person? How can a combination of amino acids write a symphony, or draft the Bill of Rights, or achieve a moon landing, or feel patriotism for a segment of Earth's crust likewise made of atoms?

* * *
If you looked deep into any substance -- iron, for instance, or rock -- you couldn't find any solid parts. Nothing tangible is there. Approach an iron atom and you would detect only a whirring "cloud'' of electrons. The nucleus would be too small and distant to be seen.

In every atom, the nucleus is as far from the electrons as the sun is from planets of the solar system. It's all emptiness -- the same emptiness you see when you look into the night sky. If an atom were the size of a 14-story building, the nucleus would equal a grain of salt on the seventh floor.

Why does iron seem solid? Because the electron cloud of one atom, charged negative, repels the negative cloud of each adjoining atom with a "push'' that seems firm. Solidity is an electrical illusion.

Electrons seem to be nearly nothing. They account for only about 1 ounce of your body's weight. Yet they have terrible energy. When a violent lightning storm explodes around you, you're witnessing the power of detached electrons. When you put your finger in a light socket, you're feeling electrons. But what are they?

And what are the quark-composed denizens of the nucleus? And what are the ghostly neutrinos that fly by trillions through your body and through the whole Earth? Nobody knows the reality of these building blocks. Sometimes they're waves. Sometimes they're particles. Sometimes they're energy. Sometimes they're mass. Formulas of quantum mechanics were devised to cover all qualities.

The mysterious bits remain unknowable. One physicist calls them "the dreams of which stuff is made.''

* * *
The unreality of matter can be seen in neutron stars and black holes.

When remains of a supernova collapse under colossal gravity, electrons of each atom are compressed into the nucleus, where they merge with protons to form a solid mass of neutrons. Nothing is lost except the void within the atom. The compacted neutrons weigh 10 million tons per cubic centimeter.

If a c.c. of actual matter, without its empty space, weighs more than the World Trade Center, how much real substance is in a human? Virtually none. Too little to see with a microscope. We are almost entirely vacuum. (And yet, bodies are real. Ask lovers in bed.)

Even packed neutrons aren't solid. If a supernova's remains are three times greater than our sun, gravity's pull is too strong to stop at the neutron star level. The collapse continues past the point of no-return -- the Schwarzchild radius -- and a black hole occurs. Everything is compressed into an invisible pit of infinity.

If Earth were squeezed to its Schwarzchild radius, it would be the size of a pearl -- and a black hole only begins at that point.

If matter is real, how could the entire planet -- continents, oceans, mountains and all -- be compressed to the dimension of your fingernail? Can anyone grasp such a thing? And yet black holes exist, astrophysicists say. Our tangible world must be a fiction, like Plato's shadows in the cave.

* * *
A historic double-slit experiment showed that light passing through two parallel slots casts an odd pattern on a wall behind the openings. Because of wave interference, the light makes bright stripes with darkness between them.

But when the test is done with a single photon of light, something eerie happens: If only one slit is open, the photon may go through it and land at a spot that would be dark in the wave pattern. But if both slits are open, the photon will not land in a dark zone.
How does a photon passing through a slit "know'' whether an adjoining slit is open or closed, and thus land accordingly? No answer has been found to this enigma.

* * *
Another mystery: If two photons are emitted in opposite directions, and the polarization of one is altered in flight by a laboratory device, it automatically changes the polarization of the other. This puzzle, expressed in Bell's Theorem, implies that some mysterious connection links independent particles across space.

* * *
In a total vacuum, "virtual'' particles emerge out of nowhere, along with their anti-particles, and they annihilate each other, quantum physicists say. This has led to the "vacuum genesis'' theory: that the whole universe sprang from nothing, following laws of physics.

* * *
I don't believe in the supernatural. I don't think a heaven full of houri sex nymphs awaits dead Muslims. I don't think that Jesus cast demons into pigs. I don't think death angels passed over Jewish homes with blood on their doorposts. I don't think there is a Shiva who wants Hindus to worship his penis.

And yet it is inescapable that there is magic deeper than any religious miracle. The world we inhabit isn't what we think it is. It is an illusion of electricity, a fabrication of force posing as matter. There is a Hiroshima in every pebble -- but the pebble really isn't there, because the whole planet could be shrunk to pebble size, and smaller.

When I discuss this with practical-minded friends, they get the uneasy look people display in the presence of loonies. Some ask: "Are you trying to say that God is E=MC2 ?''

I don't know. Maybe I am.