Science is weirder than you think

Last Sunday I attended a Charleston discussion, led by local physicist Jack Mallah, about a bewildering science revelation: that nothing exists in the way it seems -- that our daily reality is somewhat an illusion. As Churchill said, it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.Dr. Mallah's presentation was deeply technical and abstruse, with talk of wave functions, multiple universes and other things I can't grasp. However, here's my personal take:We're born into a tangible world of earth, sky, people, houses, tables, chairs and everything else. It seems totally real to us. But modern physics proves that the underlying reality is vastly strange and elusive.The more you study fundamental units -- atoms -- the more they tend to vanish. If you could shrink to the size of an atom, the nucleus would be invisible, too tiny to see. The interior of atoms is virtually all vacuum.  Researchers say that looking inside an atom would be like gazing at the night sky, with faraway pinpoints, nothing else.
That's why matter can be compressed astoundingly when empty space is removed between electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, etc.  If gravity pulls a collapsing star down into a white dwarf, the jammed-together substance weighs 10 tons per thimbleful -- something impossible to comprehend. But that's just the first stage of collapse. If a larger burned-out star shrinks down to a pulsar, a solid mass of neutrons, the matter weighs 10 million tons per cubic centimeter.If a bouillon cube can weigh 10 million tons, how much actual matter is in a 180-pound man or 120-pound woman? Not enough to see with a microscope.But pulsars aren't the final collapse. The last stage is black holes. If Planet Earth were compressed to its Schwarzchild Radius, where a black hole begins, it would be the size of a pearl. See what I mean about a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma?Hypothetically, being stabbed by a knife might be as inconsequential as two vacant sections of night sky passing through each other -- but we all know that reality is much worse.Comedian Tim Allen, actually a heavy thinker, went on a binge of physics study and wrote a book titled "I'm Not Really Here." He said ancient Asian mystics who contend that reality is an illusion apparently had a glimpse of truth, even though they didn't know the physics behind it. He wrote:"The book I'm reading now, 'The Tao of Physics,' says that no matter what well-known laws of physics apply to us and our everyday world, that at a subatomic or quantum level the rules are, well -- different.... Apparently, these teeny particles that, incidentally, no one can see, can be in two places at the same time.... They can travel back and forth in time.... Also, sometimes they're particles and sometimes waves and sometimes both at once, which means that they are at one location and everywhere at the same time...."Weirdest of all, quantum physicists say that unless certain conditions are met, these subatomic particles don't actually exist. ... Here's my big problem: Since, at the most basic level we're just a bunch of quantum particles, I hope this doesn't mean what I'm afraid it does, that in some very scary way, I'm not really here. Now for the bad news: If I'm not really here, neither are you."Allen added:"Right now, as I sit here in the kitchen... my butt and the chair it's resting on both seem pretty solid, right? It's a solid butt-chair relationship. The physicists tell us that matter is almost totally empty space, so to them my butt (and the chair) look like the view of the heavens from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. In addition, because on the micro-level there are supposedly no definite hard-line borders between anything anyway, from that perspective my butt also kind of blends with the chair like cheese on a cheeseburger."Actually, sitting on a chair seems firm because negative outer electrons in surface atoms of the chair repel negative electrons of the sitter's posterior.Meanwhile, a different local physicist, Dr. Jack Magan of West Virginia State University, says it's a mistake to think of atoms as empty -- and to think the emptiness proves Eastern mysticism. Although electrons are infinitesimal, he says, their "wave function" fills most of atoms and molecules. Thus massed atoms of matter might be visualized as a wall of balloons, with their exterior exerting a strong repelling negative force.
All this overwhelms my brain -- and makes me want to agree with famed British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote: "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at
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