Quarkiness, The Story Of Nothing

“Photons. Lots of photons.”

That’s what I said to myself, well, actually I said it out loud as I groped in the dark to make my way across the living room this morning to get to the stairs that lead up to my new writing room.  At the base of the stairs there’s a light switch and flipping it produced lots and lots of photons, maybe trillions. Literally.

Life is photons, and a bunch of other invisible particles. Life is particles all the way down. There’s even a physicist proposing that space itself may be particulate, or digital, and he’s running an experiment to test that hypothesis.

We tend to think in terms of atoms when we think of subatomic stuff at all. But an atom is little more than a few particles organized in a system that is approximately 99.99 percent nothing. Someone noted that if you took all the humans on earth and crushed them, perhaps in hypergravity, to remove all the space in the atoms, smushing all the particles together, right up against one another, you’d have a ball the size of a marble. It would be very heavy. But it would comprise all humanity, and, as a bonus, it would solve a number of environmental problems.

You could make the ball even smaller by crushing out the space between quarks that comprise the protons and neutrons. Apparently there’s quite a bit of room inside protons and neutrons. It makes me wonder if we can call them particles when they are pretty much just space. And what about the inside of quarks? More space? Or are quarks really particles, spaceless, as it were? Perhaps they’re some sort of semi-particle, something comprising strings of vibrating energy that in one instant are only energy and the next are solid matter, constantly changing state at incomprehensible speed.

Amazing as all that may be, it doesn’t have a lot to do with how I make coffee in the morning or what I use to brush my teeth or what a woman feels like breathing next to me in the middle of the night. Physicists try to connect the unimaginably small world of quantum mechanics with the unimaginably large world of gravity through the universe. They haven’t done it yet, but it’s a little like trying to connect that woman with quarks. She’s not having it. (She is also completely imaginary, in case anyone was wondering.)

Thinking about these things, the mind struggles. If I am 99.99 percent nothing, then what am I? What’s left in that .01 percent? Ultimately the question is irrelevant. We live on the macro scale, we act in the world on the macro scale, and we need only step on the bathroom scale in the morning to see how macro we may be. We can’t change the way we act in the world by contemplating our spaciousness or by focusing our minds on rearranging the atoms of political enemies via some sort of quarkian brain waves.

We are Popeye. We am what we am and that’s all what we am. We are a lot of nothing and so is our spinach. But I find it fascinating that at four in the morning I can go out on my back porch and look up at the stars, and think that I am just quarks here contemplating quarks there. That’s pretty amazing for a lot of nothing.


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