Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne All Matter Particles?
Name: Jameson
Status: student
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A


Question:
Is all matter particles? That is to ask, is it mathematically possible to have matter which does not have a definitively formed point?



Replies:
Jameson,

According to quantum physics, no matter has one definitively formed point at which it must always exist. You can measure a position and say that the particle appears to be there, but it is only an average position, a most likely position.

With very small particles, like electrons, this uncertainty is important. It is possible for electrons to pass through two holes at the same time, provided you do not measure which hole it goes through. When you measure a position, only one of the possible positions will register. Any particle can act as if it has only one position, but only when the measurement forces it. After measurement, the particle "spreads out" again.

With very large objects, such as baseballs, this uncertainty is not important. The baseball exists over a wide range of space, over many, many atomic widths. Measuring a baseball does not select a single point. You can say that it exists around a specific point, but not at a specific point. If a baseball moves by the width of one hundred atoms, nobody will know.

Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Physics Instructor
Illinois Central College


The branch of physics known as quantum mechanics explores the non-particle nature of matter. It turns out a lot of phenomena can be explained by thinking of matter as waves, rather than particles. The answer to your question is yes, it is not only mathematically possible, but also quite well-accepted that matter is not just a collection of hard spheres the way traditional (Newtonian) physics first treated it.

Hope this helps,

Burr Zimmerman


At the atomic/molecular (and smaller scale) the distinction between "particle" and "wave" disappears. This a hard concept to swallow, but the experimental data (not just somebody thinking up some idea) require this dual behavior. On that size scale, "point" loses its traditional definition. Then one has to talk about probability of a "particle's" position -- and the harder you look to find the particle's position the "squishier" the particle becomes. This is probably the "classical" example of constructing a mathematical model, following the consequences to their logical conclusion, and finding out that the consequences are not intuitive. Beware of "common sense" and " intuition" they can lead us down a slippery slope.

Vince Calder



Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory