Until recently I believed the conventional wisdom of modern physics that particles and waves both exist even though we know something like a light wave sometimes isn’t exactly one or the other. If a light wave hits a detector it acts like a particle. If it hits a bunch of slits, it acts like a wave. Yes, the wave particle duality is seemingly understood and I’ve read about it since I first began reading about physics. The question is do we really need both particles and waves to model reality? Do particles actually exist in any form remotely resembling our conceptions of them? For that matter, do we need waves or could we explain everything perfectly well with particles?
In the course of discussing whether proton and neutrons actually touch in the nucleus with a fellow blogger, I found myself moving to the position that maybe the notion of particles really wasn’t useful.
First of all, let me state that I don’t believe any of the mental models we make for reality actually map one for one, one hundred percent, to reality. In that sense, I don’t think either waves or particles actually exist exactly like our mental constructions of them. Both waves and particles are simplifications of something that does exist. So I don’t think it is all in our consciousness (a more nuanced discussion of this later). The pragmatic question (I am a pragmatist) is whether the concepts of both particles and waves are useful. Or, can we just dispense with one of them – either particles or waves?
Charles Sebens in an Aeon article What’s everything made of? addresses the question with a slant not unlike my own. Surprisingly to me, the idea that reality might just be waves originated in a modern form with Michael Faraday:
In 1844, Michael Faraday explored this option in an unpublished manuscript and a short published ‘speculation’. One could imagine describing the physics of hard, solid bodies of various shapes and sizes colliding and bouncing off one another. However, when two charged particles (such as electrons) interact by electric attraction or repulsion, they do not actually touch one another. Each just reacts to the other’s electromagnetic field. The sizes and shapes of the particles are thus irrelevant to the interaction, except in so much as they change the fields surrounding the particles. So, Faraday asked: ‘What real reason, then, is there for supposing that there is any such nucleus in a particle of matter?’ That is, why should we think that there is a hard core at the centre of a particle’s electromagnetic field? In modern terms, Faraday has been interpreted as proposing that we eliminate the particles and keep only the electromagnetic fields.
The idea of particles goes back in some form at least to the ancient Greeks. Plato had a theory that everything was made from four elements in various combinations. Democritus developed the concept of the atom. Modern physics broke down the atom into particles and then the particles into more particles. Possibly the crowning achievement of 20th century physics is the Standard Model with its myriad of particles with names like quarks, charm, up, down, and strange.
Sebens doesn’t see the Standard Model going away even if we eventually remove particles from an improved model:
Physicists have developed an improvement on the periodic table called ‘the standard model’. The standard model is missing something very important (gravity) and it might turn out that the pieces it describes are made of yet more fundamental things (such as vibrating strings). That being said, the standard model is not going anywhere. Like Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity or James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics, we expect that the standard model will remain an important part of physics no matter what happens next.
What we are describing as “particle” is actually just a bunch of measurements like mass and spin. The measurements don’t go away even if the concept of particle is dropped. But both mass and spin complicate the concept of particle. Mass becomes problematic with the photon, for example, since it is a massless particle.
The second consideration that led me to an all-fields picture was the realisation that we don’t have a way of treating the photon as a particle in quantum electrodynamics. Dirac invented an equation that describes the quantum behaviour of a single electron. But we have no similar equation for the photon.
If you think of electrons as particles, you’ll have to think of photons differently – either eliminating them (Lazarovici’s story) or treating them as a field (Hubert’s story). On the other hand, if you think of electrons as a field, then you can think of photons the same way. I see this consistency as a virtue of the all-fields picture.
Spin is yet another problematic attribute. In fact, almost always when spin is brought up in particle discussions, there is always some disclaimer about we can’t really think about particles spinning. Actually the notion of particles spinning can’t be explained.
The standard lore in quantum physics is that the electron behaves in many ways like a spinning body but is not really spinning. It has spin but does not spin.
If the electron is point-size, of course it does not make sense to think of it as actually spinning. If the electron is instead thought of as a very small ball, there are concerns that it would have to rotate faster than the speed of light to account for the features that led us to use the word ‘spin’. This worry about faster-than-light rotation made the physicists who discovered spin in the 1920s uncomfortable about publishing their results.
If the electron is a sufficiently widely spread-out lump of energy and charge in the Dirac field, there is no need for faster-than-light motion. We can study the way that the energy and charge move to see if they flow in a circular way about some central axis – to see if the electron spins. It does.
To me, the picture of a particle in a wave-only view would be a toroidal or spherical band of bound energy that diffuses over distance. It is not so much a tiny billiard ball but a fuzzy vibrating thing that reacts to other particles/waves. I might speculate that even concepts like mass could be explained as another wave attribute that varies over some exceedingly small period of time. What we measure when we measure mass might be something like an average.
Perhaps something like the Energy Wave Theory is on the right track.
Energy Wave Theory (EWT) is a mathematical model with logical explanations for the smallest components of the universe that:
- Simplifies all known particles to be based on one fundamental particle – the neutrino
- Simplifies the cause of motion and forces to be based on one fundamental rule – to minimize wave amplitude
- Explains the creation of particles, atoms and molecules using descriptions that can be modeled with one set of classical laws
The unification of two separate branches of mechanics is based on the conservation of energy and classical laws used for the behavior of waves, such as sound waves. Therefore, it is titled Energy Wave Theory and the first two pages are dedicated to the descriptions of energy and waves.
Everything that we see is based on the motion of space, traveling in the form of waves. It was in the 1600s that Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens and other physicists recognized that light traveled through space as waves with varying wavelengths. But there’s much more to this energy that we don’t physically see with our eyes. The motion of space is energy and there are multiple types and forms of waves, which we perceive to be different things:
- Particles are standing, longitudinal waves.
- Photons are traveling, transverse waves.
- Forces are different wave types causing the motion of particles to minimize wave amplitude.
- Atoms are formed by electrons and protons that have both attractive and repelling forces, causing the electron’s orbital.
So far, I don’t think the EWT theory is getting much traction. It may be wrong in enough ways that people find the concept discredited. However, the resolution of the main question may still lie in the future.
It is not yet clear what classical and quantum electrodynamics are telling us about reality. Is everything made of particles, fields or both?
This question is not front and centre in contemporary physics research. Theoretical physicists generally think that we have a good-enough understanding of quantum electrodynamics to be getting on with, and now we need to work on developing new theories and finding ways to test them through experiments and observations.
That might be the path forward. However, sometimes progress in physics requires first backing up to reexamine, reinterpret and revise the theories that we already have. To do this kind of research, we need scholars who blend the roles of physicist and philosopher, as was done thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece.
Perhaps I’m biased towards the all wave/all field approach to physics because I have argued for the electromagnetic field to play a role in consciousness. Well, yes, perhaps I’m guilty and somewhat predisposed to a wave-only approach. In the wave-particle discussion, however, the electromagnetic field itself does have its own weirdness. The exchange particle for electromagnetic interaction is a photon, not just an ordinary photon, but a virtual photon. Not only does the EM field’s particle lack mass, it also is not exactly a real particle. In fact, it is more like a wiggle in the EM field.
Particles? They’re just pinched-off bits of that field. Or, more accurately, they’re excitations (like, wiggles) of the field that can travel freely.
The fields wiggle to and fro (and sometimes fro and to). If the wiggles persist and travel, we call them “particles.” If they die off quickly, we call them “virtual particles.” But fundamentally, they’re both wiggles of fields.https://www.livescience.com/55833-what-are-virtual-particles.html
If both physical particles and consciousness are mediated by the EM field, then consciousness would not consist of a “substance” different from what mediates the physical reality of particles, atoms, molecules, and our physical world. Consciousness isn’t required to manifest external reality as some QM interpretations argue, but instead consciousness manifests itself in fundamentally the same manner as external reality manifests itself. It is all wiggles in the EM field. 🙂