Matter is the most striking feature of perceived reality. It is all around us and within us too. Bereft of it the world would be insubstantial nothingness: a metaphysical thought with no physical correspondence. We see things, touch things, taste things, hear and smell things: all these make up much of perceived reality. Matter requires space —a tiny, tiny region or a vast, vast volume.
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, like air or hydrogen. There is also a fourth state of matter, called plasma, to which all matter is transformed when raised to very high temperatures. Plasma is not as common here on earth, but much of the matter in the material universe is in the plasma state. It is in the core of shining stars.
The universe is more empty than filled: matter is found only here and there in the vastness of its expanse. Thus, the universe is one vast void, with sprinklings of matter here and there, not unlike having a dozen or so fish in the all of the seas of the world. This is not a material universe at all, but a radiant one, for its entire span is perpetually bathed in vibrant electromagnetic radiation.
An old saying, attributed to Euripedes, is that “Variety is sweet in all things.” One may wonder if there could be world with just one kind of matter. Perhaps, but that would be dreadfully boring. Variety also enhances possibilities. Just consider how many different words you can form with just three letters. According to current physics, the world began with one kind of matter only: hydrogen, but soon other substances were formed from it. How this happened is a fascinating narrative in physics.
There is sand and stone, water and wood, there is mud, mica, and much more. Human ingenuity has concocted other kinds of matter: from plastics and DDT to countless more substances. We synthesize things to relieve pain, to cure ailments, to make better floors and carpets, and for a thousand reasons. This staggering assortment of things not only add charm and beauty to perceived reality, they make our existence a possibility.
Every manifestation of matter behaves differently, each has its own unique properties. These could change under changing conditions. Thus the same substance is solid ice, liquid water, or tenuous vapor, depending on the 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, depending on the conditions.
And then there is enormous richness in how they burn and transform, how they store up or spill out energy, how they combine with other materials or remain aloof, and so on. 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, but it would all be inert and unchanging, dismal as in the darkness of Pluto which is a lifeless dungeon as far as we can reckon.
The universe is a complex arising from simplicity. At the experiential level, we are struck by the variety in all the matter. But as we look deeper into the material world, we discover surprising simplicity. It is not a barren simplicity, but a marvelous one, rich in consequences, splendid in expressions.
We talk with ease about oxygen and helium, about H2O and CO2, but three hundred years ago – a wink in history – people knew nothing of these. Only painstaking experiments, critical analyses, and arduous efforts at explaining things in consistent ways enabled humanity to uncover the underlying essence of things.
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 consisting of oxygen and hydrogen, or of sugar as a configuration with 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 range of color and smell, of taste and softness, is the result of the affiliations of various elements, often chemically combined. The mixing of materials in specific proportions results in limitless variety.
Every substance, such as we know it, has an ultimate integral unit in which it preserves its identity. But this ultimate brick of any piece of matter is not exactly unbreakable. It can be further broken apart. However, when this is done, the substance 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.
In a piece of matter, the constituent atoms are separated by distances significant in relation to their sizes. As Emerson put it,
“Atom from atom yawns as far / As moon from earth, or star from star.”
The perceived reality of gross matter, continuous to all appearances, is in fact an agglomeration of very minute entities, like sand grains on a beach, but far too small to be discerned as such. Underneath the softness of silky surfaces and deep in the smooth flow of fluids there is granular structure. It is as if a myriad of non-touching pebbles formed together a tapestry, their coarseness camouflaged by a deceptive continuity when viewed from a distance.
The atom itself is cuttable, and so are some of its components. Probing into matter has been compared to the peeling of an onion: as each layer is undressed, what remains has more layers still. But science will not give up in its quest for the last brick of perceived reality. Physicists have been going deeper and deeper to uncover the last bricks of the material world, armed with the flashlights of ingenious instruments and mighty mathematics.
By the last quarter of the twentieth century, physicists drew a cogent and colorful picture, claiming at least as much finality as what their predecessors claimed about theirs: The material world is constructed from three principal kinds of point-mass concentrations. These bear the names quarks, leptons, and field particles. And under each category there are quite a few entities. The hardy tangible stuff of the material world emerges from infinitesimally small punctual masses, not unlike a canvas by Seurat on which tiny dabs create magnificent sceneries.
How quarks and leptons and field particles act and interact determines the nature of perceived reality. These basic bundles of energy and momentum 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 units of the physical world. Physics traces every aspect of the world to them. We speak of the natural and the supernatural. But there is also a subnatural world at the root of it all.
This is the astounding statement that physics makes. All observed events, whether tides in oceans, explosions in supernovas, orbits of planets, snowflakes in winter, even the myriad facets of living entities: every single thing and event of perceived reality can be accounted for in terms of a handful of entities which barely occupy any space, for that is what point-like concentration means.
Think of what will happen if a gas were heated to ever increasing temperatures. As mentioned earlier, at the core of matter there are atoms with electrically charged nuclei around which are whirling still smaller charged entities called electrons. At enormously high temperatures most atoms would be stripped of one or more electrons. Matter will then consist of liberated electrons and charged atoms. It is then said to be in the plasma state. At higher temperatures still, of the order of ten or more billion degrees, every atom would be shorn of its electrons, the nuclei would be turned to stark nudity. This is an insufferably hot concentration of mass, gory like a creature that has been skinned, impossible to touch or be placed in a container, for in its voracious heat this would vaporize all that comes to its vicinity. Matter is then said to be in a free-nucleon state.
Thus, if the temperature of a substance reaches to millions of degrees, matter is transformed into such uncommon phases. Pure plasma and free-nucleon states are unimaginably hot matter. Nature holds such super-hot substances in the depths of empty space, far from ordinary material concentrations. Much of the matter in the universe – of the kind we have observed thus far – is more plasma than plain, for the stars are where the action really is. Matter is concentrated in the core of most stars as plasma and in the free-nucleon state. All those twinkling stars, our sun included, with temperatures fantastically high, are made up of matter of a different nature.
What would happen at still higher temperature: billions, then trillions of degrees? One can well imagine that at such unimaginable hotness, even protons and neutrons would be split apart, and gross matter would evaporate into its quark and leptonic essences. This would be an eerie nothingness that we can hardly picture, such as it was perhaps at the moment of the big bang of cosmic emergence.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, yet another state of matter was discovered at the other extreme of the temperature range. At extremely low temperatures many atoms in a gas combine to form systems which are very unlike any other matter state. Such multiple combinations of atoms are known as Bose-Einstein condensates. They behave neither like solids not liquids, nor gases, not plasma. Bose-Einstein condensates may be made to eject material pulses: not unlike lasers which are pure radiation. Understanding and manipulating this state of matter may lead to some significant technological innovations, especially in the fields of time measurement and computers.
More 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 alone? Should matter necessarily have to be bright to exist in the stretches of space?
But what is this dark matter that, we think, pervades the world? Once it was believed that this was made up of the mysterious neutrinos which are known to be zooming past and through every region of space and through every planet and 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 dominate our universe. We are reminded of poet Coleridge’s lines:
“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 pierecest it / As with a wedge.”
It is an ancient and continuing controversy: Is there more to life than matter? Are creatures just automata, robots running around, powered by chemical, instead of electric, batteries? Are humans no more than marvelous machines, our brain secreting thoughts as the liver secretes bile? Is life essentially a system of bio-molecules, functioning as per the laws of chemistry which have brought about networks of neurons, more complex surely than the most sophisticated gadget, but on ultimate analysis not much different?
The debate dates back to the dawn of philosophy. We 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.
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 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?
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 withou 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 mind by polluting the brain. A modicum of mescaline will do the job. When disease invades, or brain cells age, the mind withers too. Destroy the matter composing the brain, and off goes the mind with it. All 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.