Join 3,558 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations
November 23, 2008 1:23 AM   Subscribe

Confirmed: Scientists Understand Where Mass Comes From. An exhaustive calculation of proton and neutron masses vindicates the Standard Model. Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations.
posted by homunculus (52 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
supercomputers < giant superconducting magnets
posted by ryanrs at 1:34 AM on November 23, 2008


"There is still a difference between something and nothing, but it is purely geometrical and there is nothing behind the geometry."
— Martin Gardner
posted by snarfodox at 1:35 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh my God, it was vacuum fluctuations that caused me to throw out my Hoover, and now you tell me this is the stuff the universe is made of?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:47 AM on November 23, 2008 [9 favorites]


Someday the giant mathematical gerbil will realize it's oversight and correct all of us.
posted by qinn at 1:51 AM on November 23, 2008


On to consciousness!
posted by carsonb at 2:00 AM on November 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


an awesomely difficult computation to deduce the masses of the proton and the neutron — the so-called baryon particles that constitute atomic nuclei — from theory alone

Has this branch of physics ceased to be in any way empirical? And if so, has it therefore ceased to be science?
posted by Phanx at 2:16 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow. This is massive.
posted by loquacious at 2:22 AM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Oh my God, it was vacuum fluctuations that caused me to throw out my Hoover, and now you tell me this is the stuff the universe is made of?

Yes. You know that black hole at the center of the galaxy?

That was you.

I hope you're happy.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:25 AM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Wow. This is massive.

Only about half the time. It fluctuates.
posted by carsonb at 2:31 AM on November 23, 2008 [10 favorites]


Has this branch of physics ceased to be in any way empirical?

No, and this is my layman's understanding (so it could be wrong), essentially we already knew about all of the separate parts of the Standard Model by deducing them from experiments. This was an attempt to accurately simulate the complicated interactions on the quark-gluon level. The simulation worked, so that is strong evidence that the model is correct.
posted by napkin at 2:31 AM on November 23, 2008


That's pretty fucking awesome. Go computers!
posted by flippant at 3:01 AM on November 23, 2008


Is it just me or does the breathless physics reporting of New Scientist remind you of What the Bleep Do We Know?
posted by benzenedream at 3:03 AM on November 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


What is matter?

Never mind.

What is mind?

No matter.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:07 AM on November 23, 2008 [10 favorites]


Please do not refer to What the Bleep Do We Know? just because the articles used the word "quantum"
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:11 AM on November 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


Has this branch of physics ceased to be in any way empirical? And if so, has it therefore ceased to be science?

As I understand it (and I don't) this is confirmation that theory fits experimental data, so it's most certainly an empirical project. The idea was to take the "standard model" of particle physics, which has been experimentally confirmed a hundred different ways, and see if they could crank out numbers which match the observed masses of particles. It turns out they could. Like napkin said, three cheers for the standard model!

Going the other way, since we now have a good theoretical model of what's happening inside a proton (wow!) experimental physicists have some hints as to what experiments might be worth conducting in the future.

...ceased to be science?

Ceased to be science? I'd say this work is so scientistically scientifical that it makes chemistry look like astrology. They just told us where mass comes from -- mass -- and they even did it in terms that are kind of comprehensible to laypeople like us.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:14 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


TwelveTwo: Try contrasting the New Scientist article with the other publications. For example, the last lines:

Nature:
"The Higgs then just explains the 1% of it that comes from quark masses." All the same, she adds, where that last per cent comes from is still "a very important fundamental question".

New Scientist:
So if the LHC confirms that the Higgs exists, it will mean all reality is virtual.
posted by benzenedream at 3:32 AM on November 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Aw hell. I though all my mass came from chili cheese fries.
posted by pjern at 3:35 AM on November 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


I would like to quote from the first comment on that first link:

Isotropic vacuum demands angular momentum conservation through Noether’s theorem. Lab and cosmological vacuum EM show perfect isotropy. Equivalence Principle tests validate the massed sector. Do left and right shoes fall identically? If reality is teleparallel gravitation with spacetime torsion, opposed solid single crystals of quartz in space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 will give a net non-zero Eotvos experiment output. Their atomic mass distributions are non-superposable mirror images: 0.113 nm^3 shoes gaplessly 3-D tesselated into self-similar 10^23-member crystals.

Sure makes the average commenter on a blog post look positively... pedestrian.

Part of me wants to know if that paragraph is actually an artfully-constructed wind-up.
posted by LondonYank at 4:08 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Scientists have just built the world's biggest supercollider, and they're doing experiments to see what makes up protons. I hope that if the experiment's successful, the whole of our reality will dissolve, and a big sign will up come that says: 'Level Two'."
~Frankie Boyle
posted by aihal at 4:15 AM on November 23, 2008 [41 favorites]


I would like to quote from the first comment on that first link:

The comments are full of cranks, that one being no exception. The comments on the Nature article are the only sensible ones.

As a physics geek, I don't find this particularly revolutionary but I guess it plays well in the press. We already knew that the mass of the proton is not simply the mass of the constituent quarks. These guys showed that QCD binding energy can indeed account for most of the rest.

Has this branch of physics ceased to be in any way empirical? And if so, has it therefore ceased to be science?
posted by Phanx at 10:16 AM on November 23 [+] [!


A theory from one branch of physics has been used to compute the mass of something which matches with empirical observations. This, contrary to what you say, is science making itself stronger.
posted by vacapinta at 4:38 AM on November 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


This is an interesting result, but "origins of mass understood" oversells it, I think; "matter is merely vacuum fluctuations" misses the point completely. There are some useful comments on the Nature News page, the second link in the post. The paper by Durr et al. and a nice technical summary by Kronfeld are both in Science, which has a paywall; there is a less technical summary by Cho which will be free for about a month.

This work addresses the issue that mass inside nuclei acts differently than mass in anything else in nature. Suppose I hand you a box of bricks. If you weigh the box, and take one brick out and weigh it alone, then you know how many bricks the box holds. This same method works for any box of anything: planets, mountains, movie theaters, cornflakes, ants, dust grains, atoms. It doesn't work for galaxies, where you have add some invisible "dark matter" to get mass distributions that match the way things move. It almost works for nuclei, and totally fails for protons and neutrons (and other hadrons).

A nucleus is a collection of protons and neutrons, in the same way that a wall is a collection of bricks. If you disassembled a wall into bricks, the total mass would stay the same (or get lighter, since the mortar would crumble and some of the bricks would break and you would lose the dust and so on). If you disassembled a nucleus into protons and neutrons, it would get heavier. If you wanted to turn, say, an iron-56 nucleus into 26 protons and 30 neutrons, you would have to find almost enough energy to make an extra neutron out of nothing. Textbooks call this the "binding energy" of a nucleus. And it turns that most things (nuclei, atoms, brick walls) work this way. Things that get lighter when you take them apart will fall apart on their own. Things that get heavier when you take them apart will stay together unless you hit them.

Except for protons and neutrons. If you could a proton (mass 1) apart like a brick wall, you would have three quarks (total mass 0.01) and lots of gluons (total mass zero). So why don't protons just fall apart? The proton must have some more energy in its constituents, since protons apparently never fall apart. Where is this energy?

Part of it comes from relativity: the gluons carry a lot of momentum, and their kinetic energy contributes to the mass of the proton even though the gluons themselves have zero mass. Part of it comes from the momentum of the three "valence" quarks. And part of it comes from the "ocean" of quark-antiquark pairs that flitter in and out existence in the vacuum. If I understand Kronfeld's summary, Durr et al. came up with some computational trickery that permitted them to include the whole ocean of virtual quark pairs. They calculate the mass of every object you can make using up, down, and strange quarks without having to worry about charm quarks and heavier. And they get them all right. This lends a lot of credence to the idea that the light-quark corner of the Standard Model doesn't have any pieces missing.

The Higgs mechanism gives you something different: without the Higgs mechanism, quarks and electrons would not have mass. The type of calculation under discussion here (look up "lattice QCD") assumes that quarks are very heavy and extrapolates down towards (but not to) the lightweight quarks of the real world. Durr el al. also have a more convincing extrapolation than others I have seen, but that may just be my ignorance as an experimentalist. I don't know whether extrapolation-free lattice QCD computations will become possible on slightly bigger computers in a few years, or whether some divergence will always prevent that.

I can sympathize with the crackpots at Discoverblogs wondering whether this conclusion (mass of stuff == mostly momentum, via relativity) has bearing on the mismatch between quantum mechanics and general relativity, or the equivalence principle, or suchlike.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 4:56 AM on November 23, 2008 [63 favorites]


meanwhile, epicycles and deferents fairly accurately predict the orbit of mars.
posted by geos at 4:56 AM on November 23, 2008


BREAKING NEWS: SCIENCE WRITING IS MERELY VACUITY FLUCTUATIONS
posted by blasdelf at 4:59 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


So if such a breathless and superficial inverted pyramid is published, it will mean all reality is virtual.
posted by blasdelf at 5:03 AM on November 23, 2008


all this results says is that lattice QCD can accurately approximate QCD for mass prediction, which it damn well better do. it doesn't say that this is useful i.e. an approximate theory is only useful it makes things easier (it sounds like this calculation took a lot of work,) and it doesn't say anything (nor claim anything) about the fundamental validity of QCD.
posted by geos at 5:09 AM on November 23, 2008


I always enjoy comments like this, where it's clear someone informed on the issue is weighing in. I don't outright dismiss the research and hard work of others simply because in my own limited understanding, something doesn't ring true to me, or I don't like the website. I'd like to be able to toss in my own interprettation of matter and energy, but it's far more likely I'd start talking about microscopic sharks who fire lasers from their eyes.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:00 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Marisa, sharks would be by no means the strangest thing a physicist would have heard. In my department, we'd get whole books, some beautifully illustrated. My personal favorite was a series of gorgeously-designed diagrams showing how electrons were actually tiny pyramids. The exploded schematics for various nuclear interactions would, now that I reflect back upon them through years of bad television, bring to mind some kind of wire-frame sketchup used for the planning meeting of the special effects team in charge of a particularly glorious battle in Stargate: SG-1.
posted by adipocere at 6:30 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Marisa, sharks would be by no means the strangest thing a physicist would have heard.

Alright! MIT, here I come.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:35 AM on November 23, 2008


Pics or it didn't happen.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:47 AM on November 23, 2008


I almost understood fantabulous timewaster's comment. Go me! (And thanks for trying to explain it!)
posted by threeturtles at 7:00 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Vacuum fluctuations"? What? Isn't a vacuum, by definition, an absence of matter?

And matter is created by fluctuations in the absence of matter, you say? Isn't that a bit like saying flies are a result of a fluctuation in the general lack of flies? I think you might be looking through the wrong end of the telescope, sir.

Is this something I'd have to read the links to understand?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:37 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


That's kind of lame...I feel less important.
posted by god particle at 7:44 AM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


"Vacuum fluctuations"? What? Isn't a vacuum, by definition, an absence of matter?

from the 2nd link: "According to quantum theory, a vacuum is filled with virtual particles that pop in and out of existence in pairs, corresponding to particles and their antimatter equivalents."

Not that I get any of it.
posted by stargell at 8:07 AM on November 23, 2008


Two things never cease to astound me: quantam physics, and the continuing scientific validation of my drunkenly-written Philosophy 101 papers.
posted by Benjy at 8:27 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I wonder if archaeologists will one day find the physics labs at Nalanda where they worked all this out centuries ago.
posted by Abiezer at 8:35 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Welcome to The Matrix.
posted by 3.2.3 at 8:49 AM on November 23, 2008


"Ninety-nine per cent of the mass of the proton and neutron, and therefore the visible Universe, is QCD binding energy...The Higgs then just explains the 1% of it that comes from quark masses." All the same, she adds, where that last per cent comes from is still "a very important fundamental question".

I'm sure the LHC guys are kicking themselves - $8bn and 10 years down the drain.
posted by Capt Jingo at 8:55 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Matter cannot merely be vacuum fluctuations, because we don't see "anti-mass". Something that fluctuates moves back and forth with equal likelihood.

It's not quite that simple. To understand mass, you need to understand gravity. To understand gravity, you need to understand a little bit about space(-time). My understanding of space-time and general relativity began with a simple question and answer I heard when I was in high school.

Q. If everything in the universe is simultaneously moving away from everything else, where is the center of the universe?
A. The universe is (at least) four dimensional. Imagine the three spatial dimensions we experience every day squished down to a flat, two-dimensional surface. Do this because it's easy to imagine a two-dimensional universe expanding in three dimensions. Take a balloon (skip to ~1:45 if you're in a hurry). Draw little spiral galaxies on it. Now blow into the balloon. The "center" of the universe is nowhere on the surface of the 2-D universe. It's within it, in the third dimension. Similarly, our universe is like that, but with one extra dimension that it's hard for us to visualize.

What does this have to do with gravity? Special relativity tells us that space is like a rubber sheet (or a balloon, if you cut it open and stretch it flat). Mass deforms that sheet (skip to ~6:15). Bodies in space orbit other bodies because they get caught in the well (as seen at most museums) created by the other body's mass. So gravity is the tendency of massive objects to "fall" to the lowest local energy state (which is balanced by any kinetic energy they carry).

So now take the balloon, but as you blow into it, put a hand around the balloon so that your fingertips rest on the 2-D surface you're blowing up. As you blow into the balloon, what do you notice? The spots where your fingertips are deform inwards, exactly like a mass on a rubber sheet. This suggests to me that gravity is the tendency of mass to resist the cosmic expansion. Mass is just a certain type of energy that pulls space together. I suspect that this is because it's extradimensional (compare with light, which as seen in the video, is not so much bent by mass as it follows a straight line through space that is bent by mass). This may also account for the fact that gravity is much weaker (see chart, under "Relative Strength") than the other three fundamental forces.
posted by Eideteker at 9:32 AM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Is it just me or does the breathless physics reporting of New Scientist remind you of What the Bleep Do We Know?

Yes, and I haven't even seen the movie, thankfully.
posted by lukemeister at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is cool. The LHC is still relevant, as knowing how those quarks have mass in the first place is important. But that most of our mass is bound up in energy, well, that's amazing.
posted by Hactar at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2008


Bill Hicks, the Beastie Boys and your annoying stoner mate were right!
posted by Artw at 9:53 AM on November 23, 2008


Matter cannot merely be vacuum fluctuations, because...

It isn't. Thats just the title of an irresponsible New Scientist article.

I might be better to imagine that the vacuum fluctuations server to magnify something that is already there. But it still doesn't explain why what is there, is there in the first place. Where does quark mass come from? That's the real mystery and not one that is explained here. The fact that their mass is a small contribution is not just some throw-away piece of the puzzle.

Its like saying we've explained that a balloon is made mostly of air and so we now what a balloon is. Except for this minor, thin thing called the "skin" which we'll leave to the LHC guys. Except, of course that without that "skin" there's no balloon at all.
posted by vacapinta at 10:01 AM on November 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Well this just positively sucks.
posted by swift at 10:58 AM on November 23, 2008


Confirmed: Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.
posted by alexwoods at 1:45 PM on November 23, 2008


Is this something I'd have to read the links to understand?

Mu.
posted by homunculus at 5:10 PM on November 23, 2008


We begin by defining a spherical cow, \mu.
posted by lukemeister at 5:45 PM on November 23, 2008


The misunderstandings here all come from the fact that the OP failed to link to the only reputable science news magazine I know of. SN gets things right. Read it.
posted by Xezlec at 8:38 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


All your mass are belongs to us
posted by Eekacat at 9:04 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


LondonYank: "I would like to quote from the first comment on that first link:

Isotropic vacuum demands angular momentum conservation through Noether’s theorem. Lab and cosmological vacuum EM show perfect isotropy. Equivalence Principle tests validate the massed sector. Do left and right shoes fall identically? If reality is teleparallel gravitation with spacetime torsion, opposed solid single crystals of quartz in space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 will give a net non-zero Eotvos experiment output. Their atomic mass distributions are non-superposable mirror images: 0.113 nm^3 shoes gaplessly 3-D tesselated into self-similar 10^23-member crystals.

Sure makes the average commenter on a blog post look positively... pedestrian.

Part of me wants to know if that paragraph is actually an artfully-constructed wind-up.
"

Let's see...chiral Eotvos, Equivalence Principle, terse and dense vocabulary? That's gotta be UncleAl, of sci.chem fame.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:19 PM on November 23, 2008


Mr. Gunn,

Did you look first? :-)
posted by lukemeister at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2008


Asian man: WHAT DID YOU SAY!!?

Scientist: Er, I said ‘vacuum fluctuations.’

Asian man: Oh...ok, right.


Nifty stuff. Muster Mark wull be full right plesed if yull hold tha lattice in hus Wilson soup.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:53 AM on November 24, 2008


Quark-antiquark pairs can pop up and momentarily transform a proton into a different, more exotic particle.

Something about this just sounds kinky (and let's be honest; kinda hot).
posted by quin at 1:25 PM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


« Older Blindspots is a continually-updated collection of ...  |  Brain reorganizes to make room... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments