TA 106 (Müller)
Commentary 15 (to L Sundararajan)
21 March 2008, posted 12 April 2008
And in the lowest deep a lower deep ... opens wide .... - JOHN MILTON
As noted earlier, atoms have structure and components. The recognition of the composite nature of atoms was yet another intellectual triumph of the twentieth century. The ancient views of the ultimate indivisible entities of matter were altogether different. The Indian thinker Kanâda, for example, imagined four types of atoms corresponding to earth, water, fire, and air, and attributed qualities of taste, smell, color, and touch to them. The Greek atomist Democritus (who coined the word atom) pictured the soul as being made of aromatic atoms. We must admire the ancient thinkers for their reflections and penetrating insights, but it would be neither fair to them nor factually correct to indentify interesting speculative ideas of a by-gone age with modern views. The latter were arrived at through entirely different methodologies. In fact, the idea of the atom that emerged in the twentieth century is totally different from what eighteenth and nineteenth century chemists imagined, and it is no disrespect to them to recognize this.
In the last century, human ingenuity managed to penetrate into the deepest core of matter through empirical methods, and unravel the marvels that are continually occurring in the invisible substratum of perceived reality. We will glimpse into the wonders of the microcosm later. Here let us simply note that atoms consist of electrical charges of the two kinds, and that they are dynamic and spectacular in how they behave. The structure of the atom has an uncanny resemblance to the solar system where planets orbit around a central star: Within the atom 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 made up of six protons and six neutrons. Paraphrasing poet Blake, we see a world in a grain of atom!
If the atom is cuttable, so are some of its components. Probing into matter may be compared to peeling an onion : As each layer is stripped off, what remains seems to have more layers still. Physics 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.
As per our current picture, the material world is constructed of three principal kinds of point-mass concentrations. These bear the names quarks, leptons, and field particles. In each category there are quite a few. Now think of this wonder of wonders ! The hardy tangible stuff of the material universe emerges from infinitesimally small point-like material concentrations, not unlike a canvas by Seurat on which tiny dabs create magnificent sceneries.
How these quarks, leptons, and field particles interact is what 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 we trace every aspect of the physical world.
This worldview is a great revelation, a profound secret about perceived reality. Yet, like the luxurious life of multi-millionaires, it is the talk and truth of but a privileged few: maybe a few thousand in a population of six billion and more. The rest of the human race may never have heard of quarks or leptons, or perhaps done so in TV specials or in write ups in popular magazines. But most people give a hoot for all this, if only because it does not touch them in any meaningful way.
V. V. Raman
e-mail <vvrsps (at) rit.edu>