What’s The Matter?, Part II: Pursuit Of The Ultimate


[As with yesterday’s post, I’m using the excellent book Fields Of Force by William Berkson as my major source for today’s post.]

Probably the oldest idea of matter is that matter is made up of smaller pieces of matter.  These smaller pieces are then comprised of still smaller pieces, and so forth.   One can see right away a muddle here:  what happens when you get to the smallest piece of matter?  What is it made of?  And is there even such thing as a “smallest piece of matter” or is matter infinitely divisible?

The Greeks conjectured all sorts of different ultimate materials, often based on the elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air — or some combination of these — or one of these alone.  From my reading, the Greeks generally believed that there comes a point when dividing matter that it can no longer be divided.  Democritus called these final divisions “atoms,” though his image of them was far different from our image of atoms today.  He saw atoms as tiny objects moving through space and occupying dimension and combining to form the macroscopic world.

There was a concept of Ether in Ancient Greece, but for most Greeks Ether (the Fifth Element, or “Quintessence”) usually was considered only in the context of the Heavens or of the Soul, or perhaps as the middle-man between mind and body.

I cannot at the moment think of anyone before Descartes who proposed that matter was, at base, a collection of vortexes in the Ether.  By the way, I believe Descartes is currently undervalued as a philosopher.  Sure, he is taught in school and maintains a vaulted place in the philosophical canon, but I get the feeling that few read Descartes with the awe and gusto that they should.

Descartes believed Space is not empty but utterly full.  This is a special type of Ether that is often called a Plenum.  In a Plenum type of Ether, there is absolutely no empty space– even a perfect vacuum would still contain the Plenum.  As a counter-example, Newton seems to have believed that Ether existed in Space, but that there could be void space between Ether corpuscles.

Descartes believed that matter was composed of extremely tiny, unseeable circular movements, or vortexes, in the Plenum.  The vortices could jostle each other about and combine.  They could also communicate forces or energies through space  (sort of a domino effect).  Each Ether vortex, according to Descartes, is defined only by its extension.  Therefore, for Descartes, extension is the sole basic property of substances.  Unlike Locke and Newton and others who felt that matter had several basic, observer-independent qualities (like, for some, density or shape), Descartes maintained that there was ultimately extension and only extension.  And the smallest atom of extension was the Ether vortex (aka, Plenum vortex).

Newton himself never came down very hard for or against any opinion of matter.  He did suggest at one time that matter might be something crystallized from the Ether.  He seems to have always considered the smallest bits of matter as something of some hardness, something we might call atoms, and I have not read where he was drawn to the idea of vortexes.

Leibniz, a contemporary of Newton’s, said that matter was actually not material at base, but a collection of Force Points.  Force, for Leibniz is all that is real.  Leibniz didn’t think Descartes’ vortex atoms would hold up to collisions.

Also, Leibniz pointed-out that if matter was composed of little impenetrable, indivisible atoms that yielded not at all when they collided, they would rebound with an INSTANT change in velocity.  Leibniz did not believe anything happens “instantly,” (he would have despised Quantum Theory as much as me!).  He had developed not only a Principle Of Continuity that he said applied to all Nature, but he had even invented a new kind of math that we today call Calculus (yes, independent of Newton)– to deal with these areas of finer and finer gradations of change.

Several decades later, Kant agreed and said that atoms could not be completely hard or they would rebound from each other infinitely fast– and thus put the universe in a terrible mathematical pinch since a very fundamental formula of physics is Newton’s Force = Mass * Acceleration.  Being acceleration is the change in an object’s movement, rebound qualifies as an acceleration, and if this acceleration occurs with infinite speed, this would produce, according the Force equation, infinite force… a dreadfully repugnant and incomprehensible notion.

I find it interesting that Leibniz seems to have purposefully not cited Newton’s Force equation…  I can’t help but wonder if this was due to professional jealousy.

Roger Joseph Boscovich, a very smart man hardly talked about today, and who was born just a few years before Leibniz died, had ideas along the same vein as Leibniz.  For Boscovich, matter is comprised of infinitesimal points (points made-up of nothing it sounds like) surrounded by rings of alternating attraction and repulsion.  This would explain gravity (huge outer attractive rings between particles), collision-and-rebounds (repellent rings inside the gravity rings), and chemistry (another attractive ring inside the rebounding ring).  A final repelling ring exists at the core, I think to keep atoms from just mixing together and becoming political, aka– losing their integrity.

Two hundred years after Descartes, Faraday came up with another non-atom theory of matter.  He thought that matter is created where lines of electromagnetic force cross.  Essentially, said Faraday, there is no distinction between force and matter.   Furthermore, there are no such thing as surface-bounded atoms– only force-points with certain force-dispositions.  For Faraday, matter does not create force-fields; force-fields create matter.

Faraday never got very far with this idea– it was more less just a naked assertion, and did not obtain much of a following.  One problem with the theory that is easily, if superficially, spotted is:  how is it that we are able to move pieces of matter around if they only exist where lines of force cross?  And as with most theories of matter relying on component parts (in this case lines of force), the big question is:  what keeps the little guys together– not just for the moment, but for hundreds of years, perhaps for eternity, depending on your preferred concept of matter.

Kelvin brought back Descarte’s vortex-atom, sorta, in the late 1800s.  He imagined atoms as shaped like, and behaving much as, smoke rings.  In my own imagination (and I think this is how Kelvin saw them, too) I see the spinning of the rings this way:  take a skinny, spinning cylinder and bend it into a perfect, seamless circle connected at its ends and still maintaining its spin (It’s sorta hard to describe this kind of spin, but perhaps you can envision it).

Kelvin’s ring-atoms could collide and vibrate and even create lightwaves.  There was, of course, the ever-present problem of how Kelvin’s ring-atoms would stay cohesive over time.  According to what is apparently simple physics (I haven’t done the math myself), Kelvin’s rings should expand and thus (their energy remaining constant but spreading over a larger and larger area) they will slow down over time.  Not good for life on Planet Earth, to say nothing for the rest of the Universe.

The cohesiveness problem was arguably solved by Helmholtz, who found that if we consider the Ether as a Perfect Fluid, rings once created in it could, indeed, stay together for eternity.  I’ll take his word on it for now.

Personally, I am drawn to the notion of Kelvin’s ring-atoms, and hope one day to write something substantial upon the concept.


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