Particles and Tortoises

Some primitive peoples believed that the world was created from a tortoise, or maybe from the shattering of a giant rainbow. Where was the flaw in their theories?

The mistake that the primitive peoples made when they created their mythical theories about the origins of the world was that they considered tortoises or rainbows as ‘atomic’ entities which exist apart from their world, rather than being products created by the world. An easy enough mistake; so easy in fact, that modern physicists make the same mistake when they consider particles as the basic building blocks of the world.

The classical idea was that particles exist (this probably arose because our concept of the world is based upon experiencing ‘objects’), and that particles cause and react with ‘fields’. The modern interpretation got rid of the fields and replaced them by special particles on their own. To explain the existence of particles such as protons or omega-particles, the theories postulate that they are made up of other particles still.

The notion of particles is not very satisfactory however because these particles all behave in a most ‘unparticle-like’ manner! They spontaneously appear and disappear and, furthermore, colliding them at high energies transmutes them into other particles still.

It is even stranger than that. Most of the fundamental particles are not stable in isolation, but very swiftly disintegrate into a swarm of other particles.

Particles do not even stay in the same place; they get smeared out into things like clouds. It is fundamentally impossible to know the position and velocity of a particle at the same time.

So counterintuitive is all this behaviour that scientists have speculated about the limits of human understanding of how the world works.

Some physicists seem to have resigned themselves to throwing common sense out of the window, which is a mistake, because it is entirely applicable to particles, which are a construct of common sense.

In our heads we make up a model of the world as we experience it through our senses. This model is, of course, tailored to the size scales and time scales that we evolved to deal with in our lifetimes.

Relativity effects and quantum effects are not normally encountered so we have no appropriate model for them in our heads. This is similar to being more scared of heights on a tower than in a plane, because the human brain has evolved to fear falling off trees and cliffs, but not to deal with the heights that planes fly at.

A particle is a model created for human scales. If we want to understand how the world works, we need to look at concepts that exist outside our world; we need to start with pure mathematics.

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